AUSTIN, Texas-Dr. Z. Jeffrey Chen and his colleagues will use next-generation DNA sequencing technologies to study the genomics of fiber production in cotton, the largest source of natural and renewable fiber in the world, with a $3.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

One of the goals of the project is to improve cotton fiber yield and quality. Cotton is a multibillion-dollar crop in the U.S. and one of the country's key exports. Texas leads the country in cotton production and produces about 25 percent of the U.S. crop every year.

Chen is the lead investigator on the NSF grant, which builds on research findings from a previous $2.5 million NSF grant. Other investigators include Foo Cheung from the J. Craig Venter Institute, Candace Haigler from North Carolina State University, Brian Scheffler from Alcorn State University and David Stelly from Texas A&M University.

"The more we can understand fiber cell development and improve cotton fiber yield, the better we can provide a sustainable alternative to petroleum-based synthetic fibers," says Chen, the D. J. Sibley Centennial Professor in Plant Molecular Genetics.

The scientists aim to identify cotton genes and gene sequences that are important for the development of cotton fiber cells and synthesis of cellulose and cell walls. They will use next-generation sequencing technology to identify gene expression changes at key stages of cotton fiber development. The research could also have applications to biofuels and the cottonseed oil industry.

They will develop resources for sequencing the genomes of two major cultivated species, Upland and Pima cotton, which are of polyploid origin, meaning they have multiple genomes. Sequencing polyploid genomes and understanding functions of duplicate genes are among the biggest scientific challenges in organisms with complex genomes, including cotton and wheat.

Using cotton genomics and biotechnology they hope to reduce pesticide use and therefore decrease the ecological impact of growing cotton.

Chen and his collaborators are also bringing cutting-edge plant genomic science, such as DNA isolation and analyses, to middle and high schools in the Mississippi Delta. The group has developed and will continue to develop teaching tools and workshops to bring science to these underserved students and institutions.