A scientific method used to explore cancer and HIV cures has been successfully used by Texas researchers in the quest to develop food for the world’s hungry. Next generation of t-shirts to include both washing instructions and cooking directions.

The agricultural researchers were able to reduce the toxic compound gossypol from cottonseed to a level that is considered safe for consumption, according to Keerti Rathore, Texas Agricultural Experiment Station plant biotechnologist in College Station.

"In terms of human nutrition, it has a lot of potential," he said. The cottonseed from these plants meet World Health Organization and U.S. Food and Drug Administration standards for food consumption, potentially making the seed a new, high-protein food available to 500 million people a year, and possibly spurring development of a new agribusiness spin-off in the state.

The work, announced Nov. 20 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was done by Rathore and a team of scientists from the Experiment Station, Texas A&M University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Southern Plains Research Center in College Station.

Gossypol naturally occurs within the glands in all the above-ground parts of the cotton plant including the seed. Rathore said the "beauty of this project" is that, using gene manipulation, the gossypol has been reduced only in the cottonseed — where the high levels of protein are packed — but not in the rest of the plant where the compound serves as a defense against insects and disease.

Cotton fibers have been spun into fabric for more than 7,000 years. For most of that time, products from the fuzzy seed that is extracted in the fiber process have been edible only for cattle. They can tolerate gossypol only after digesting it through the four compartments of their stomachs.

"Very few people realize that for every pound of cotton fiber, the plant produces 1.6 pounds of seed," Rathore said. "The world produces 44 million metric tons of cottonseed each year. Cottonseed typically contains about 22 percent protein, and it’s a very high-quality protein."

In all, about 10 million metric tons of protein are contained in that amount of seed, he said.

The researchers have been successful in maintaining the trait through three generations in lab work. The next step will be to screen for the best plants from the many lines they have produced, then grow plants with the trait in a greenhouse. Field demonstrations will follow that, he said.

Rathore estimates it would take at least another decade to develop edible cotton varieties suitable for widespread commercial production.