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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Zhang Joins Stellar NMSU Cotton Breeding Program

LAS CRUCES - New Mexico State University's internationally respected cotton breeding program has a new leader. Jinfa Zhang, who came to the university from Monsanto's molecular cotton breeding program in Greenville, Miss., will work to integrate traditional breeding with cutting-edge biotechnology and molecular genetic research.

"Our focus will still be on improving Acala cotton fiber quality and yield, but we will be adding herbicide and insect resistance," Zhang said. Acala, one of the most popular varieties grown in New Mexico, has the longest staple among upland cottons. It is used in specialty clothing that requires soft, billowy textures.

Zhang will devote most of his time to managing the university's cotton breeding and genetics laboratory, in addition to teaching several courses in genetics and breeding. Meanwhile, his team of cotton breeding researchers will continue their work to identify molecular markers for disease resistant and heat-tolerant genes.

"If you have molecular markers associated with high yield, better fiber quality and resistance, you can accelerate your breeding process," he said. One near-term goal is to identify and transfer resistant genes for a parasitic worm called root-knot nematode into a cotton that New Mexico farmers can use.

Within the next two years, Zhang expects to have transferred the Bt gene to Acala 1517-99, which should significantly boost pink bollworm resistance. Bt is shorthand for the Bacillus thuringiensis, an insecticidal bacterium marketed worldwide for control of many important plant pests.

Pests feeding on Bt cotton only have to ingest a small amount of the protein before they stop feeding and die. A devastating pest, the pink bollworm caterpillar enters bolls in immature stages, fouls forming fibers with a bright pink stain and eventually destroys the cotton seeds.

In 1996, a study published in the academic journal Crop Science ranked NMSU's Agricultural Experiment Station among the nation's three most influential cotton breeding programs because of its genetic contribution to the U.S. upland varieties released between 1970 and 1990. Almost half the nation's new upland cotton varieties can trace their lineage back to NMSU.

A native of China's Hubei Provience, Zhang grew up on a small rice farm. He earned bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees from Central China Agricultural University in agronomy and a second doctorate in cotton genetics and molecular biology from the University of Arkansas. Zhang is an assistant professor in NMSU's agronomy and horticulture department.