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NMSU's Cotton Breeding Program Named One of the Most Influential in Nation

LAS CRUCES -- In cotton's family tree, New Mexico State University's Agricultural Experiment Station (AES) has some strong roots -- almost half the new upland varieties trace back to the program.


In a recent study published in the journal Crop Science, AES was named as one of the three most influential cotton breeding programs in the United States for its genetic contribution to upland varieties released between 1970 and 1990. The two other programs highlighted were private seed companies -- Coker Pedigreed Seed Co., and Stoneville Pedigreed Seed Co.

"Out of 260 upland cotton varieties released nationwide, 45 percent were strongly influenced by New Mexico breeding material," said Roy Cantrell, an NMSU cotton breeder. "That is, our material was used one or more times as parents or grandparents in the pedigrees."

Plant breeders meticulously keep track of the ancestral lines or pedigrees of the varieties they develop, Cantrell said. Varieties are what's actually sold in bags of seeds to farmers, while germplasm is the breeding material that's used in developing the varieties, he explained.

"The New Mexico Agricultural Experiment Station primarily influenced the Acala program and will continue to, because Acala breeders are using much of the same resource material," said Daryl Bowman, an author of the study and a crop scientist at North Carolina State University.

Starting in the 1930s, New Mexico's cotton breeding program has emphasized development of Acala 1517 germplasm, which features high fiber quality and resistance to the soilborne disease verticillium wilt.

Cantrell attributed the success of NMSU's cotton breeding program to more than 50 years of research by a long line of scientists including G.N. (Doc) Stroman, Glen Staten, Norman Malm, Dick Davis and Carl Roberts.

Stroman released the first strain of 1517 cotton in 1937. "It had excellent fiber quality," said Staten, who retired in 1972 and still lives in Las Cruces.

Staten, who succeeded Stroman, recalled how he and several other researchers, including Davis and J.R. Cotton of the USDA, did pioneering work on verticillium resistance. "It was a terrific problem, and we worked and worked and worked until we finally got 1517V," he said. "We had a wide-based pool of germplasm."

Next came Malm, who developed storm-resistant Acala varieties for the Pecos Valley and the Eastern Plains. Davis released several Acala varieties and experimented with cotton hybrids.

Roberts, a senior research specialist who started in 1963, works on analyzing fiber quality; breeding for bacterial blight resistance; and developing high-quality Sea Island cotton varieties for New Mexico.

"They all played a critical role in developing cotton germplasm that had premium fiber quality, disease resistance and agronomic properties that made them successful not only in this state but also as sources of genes for other breeding programs," Cantrell said.

"I think a key feature of public breeding programs at universities and experiment stations like ours is the germplasm is freely shared. It's used by seed companies and other universities. It's like we're putting building blocks out there for other people to use."

Bowman agreed. "I see the role of public breeding programs primarily in terms of germplasm enhancement, hopefully being incorporated into private programs," he said.

Germplasm developed at NMSU has been used worldwide to improve fiber quality, Cantrell said. "There are more than a million acres of Acala cotton grown in California from germplasm that traces directly back to New Mexico's parental lines."

NMSU's cotton breeding continues with Cantrell. "We have a large number of promising breeding lines and germplasm that we continue to develop," he said. "We're trying to discover the actual genes that contribute to fiber quality and verticillium wilt resistance and what genes are in particular germplasm lines, so we can breed these traits more efficiently."