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Fruit of the Bioengineered Loom

Biotech products may soon change the very fabric of our society: our cotton fabric, that is. Scientists have developed a kind of cotton whose fibers have improved insulating properties, says a report in the 12 November issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The plants are the first to produce engineered fibers.

Molecular biologists Maliyakal John and Greg Keller of Monsanto Co. in Middleton, Wisconsin, inserted into cotton plants two of the three genes bacteria use to produce polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB), a plasticlike polymer that many strains produce and store for energy. The third gene is naturally present in cotton fibers. The fibers in the transgenic plants contained PHB granules, which appear to make the transgenic fibers slightly better insulators than natural cotton fibers; thus the transgenic fabric would presumably be a bit better at retaining heat.

That may not sound like a huge improvement over natural cotton, but the real significance of the achievement is that it is the first experiment to show that genes from other organisms can modify the properties of cotton fiber. And that ability could revolutionize the industry, experts say, because companies may eventually be able to generate new, improved cotton fibers every few years, just as the synthetic fiber industry does. ``If we could have a way to rapidly accelerate the development of improved cotton properties,'' says Andrew Jordan, director of technical services at the National Cotton Council, ``that could conceptually be very important for the cotton industry.''

But cotton aficionados need not be concerned about the next generation of towels feeling like polyester slacks, John says. The polymer globules are located inside the transgenic fibers, he says, so the fibers still feel like natural cotton.