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“Next-Generation” Cotton Will Boast Surprising Properties

A cotton shirt that never needs ironing? Scientists from Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) are trying to make that happen. 

The independent federal government agency, whose goal is to advance scientific research, is working to imbue cotton with properties more commonly associated with synthetic fibers—elasticity, wrinkle resistance, even waterproofing—while “retaining its natural-fiber feel,” CSIRO announced last week.

“We’re looking into the structure of cotton cell walls and harnessing the latest tools in synthetic biology to develop the next-generation cotton fiber,” said Madeline Mitchell, a post-doctoral fellow at the organization.

CSIRO is raising an assortment of cotton plants, from a long and silky variety to one it calls “Shaun the Sheep,” after the children’s animated character, for its “short, woolly fibers,” Mitchell said.

Cotton may have a reputation for being a thirsty, chemical-intensive crop, but Mitchell says it’s still better for the environment than petroleum-based synthetics like polyester and nylon, which can discharge thousands of tiny fibers into wastewater systems during laundry. Because of their size, many of these microplastics slip past sewage filters and into lakes, rivers and oceans, where they’re often mistaken for food by marine animals.

When you wash cotton, however, any fibers it sheds are biodegradable and will break down naturally in the environment, she added.

Thanks to 30 years of improved cotton breeding using genetic modification, Australian cotton is the most water-efficient in the world, producing “three times more cotton per drop of water” than any other country, according to Mitchell. 

But demand for man-made materials is on the upswing. In 1995, they constituted about half of the global fiber market; by 2015, that number rose to 77 percent, CSIRO noted. Cotton demand, though it has held steady, hasn’t shown significant growth over the years, either. 

“Synthetics may be cheaper to produce and require less ironing but people like natural fibers. They would just prefer they didn’t crease so much or they could stretch,” Mitchell said.

The next-generation cotton research is part of CSIRO’s Synthetic Biology Future Science Platform, a $13 million initiative that applies engineering principles to biology.