The project titled ‘Formation of Cotton Bast Fiber as a Means to Modulate Carbon Capture and Increase Bio-Product Utilization’ will delve deeper into the intricate mechanisms underlying cotton bast fibre formation.

The researchers hope to unlock the potential of cotton bast fibres, which develop within the phloem or “inner bark” of the cotton plant’s stem.

The university said these fibres are often overlooked but hold promise for various industrial applications, potentially serving as an alternative to synthetic fibres derived from fossil fuels.

The investigation, which is led by principal investigator and professor of biochemistry and molecular biology Brian G. Ayre, alongside research associate professor of plant development and plant molecular biology Roisin C. McGarry hopes to understand the genetic networks governing the development of bast fibres. This could then help cotton producers make informed decisions on the fibre’s economic viability and potential applications.

Over three years, the grant amount of $294,000 will be channelled towards this research initiative, falling under the USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Foundational and Applied Science Programme.

 “As climate change impacts our world, we need to re-examine cotton production systems to increase crop resiliency and expand opportunities for agricultural bio-products to replace petroleum-derived materials,” said Ayre.

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“Cotton bast fibres are an abundant  —  but overlooked  —  source of natural fibres that could offer an economic boost to cotton producers and rural economies. By understanding bast fibre development and cell wall biochemistry, we may increase crop returns by enriching a value-added co-product while generating new knowledge for fundamental science.”

The grant also includes $341,000 in funding for a Laser Microdissection (LMD) System, a tool for precision sample preparation in agricultural and food research which will assist in research not only for cotton-related studies but also for various projects within UNT’s BioDiscovery Institute.

LMD technology allows for the precise isolation of specific tissues or individual cells, facilitating intricate analyses crucial for developmental biology, biochemistry, and systems biology related “-omics” technologies.

“Having this equipment at UNT will enhance our research capabilities and be a valuable tool for our research collaborators in the North Texas and Southern Oklahoma region,” said Ayre.

“LMD enables users to easily isolate microscopic tissues or single cells, free from contaminating material that could compromise results or conceal signals. LMD is used in genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics and metabolomics across a broad spectrum of biological, agricultural, biomedical and allied fields, such as plant and animal development, metabolism, pathology and organisms interacting with the biotic and abiotic environment.”

This aspect of the project is spearheaded by Ayre and McGarry, alongside Vanessa Macias, assistant professor of invertebrate biology, genetic engineering, and molecular biology in mosquitoes, Patrick Horn, assistant professor of plant biochemistry, and Jyoti Shah, University Distinguished Research Professor and chair of UNT’s Department of Biological Sciences.

In February it was announced the projected growth rates for US cotton over the next two years were set to be well below the recent historical average on the back of weak demand, according to the National Cotton Council of America.