Image: R. Malcolm Brown

The look and feel of cotton--when it's grown off the plant in a petri dish--could be very different, say plant biologists at the University of Texas at Austin. R. Malcolm Brown and graduate student Rong Feng recently described a new way of cultivating the crop in the lab by actually submerging the seed, or ovules, in a cell culture filled with special nutrients. Their report on the method appears in this month's issue of In Vitro Cellular and Developmental Biology.

Earlier techniques for growing cotton in culture worked only if the seed remained floating on the surface of a liquid medium. In contrast, Brown's fibers continue to develop when dunked. These fibers are very much like those grown naturally but offer one potentially important difference: "Some ... have characteristic helical thickenings of seconary cell walls," Brown notes. "These patterns are more like those found in the xylem elements of woody plants." And these patterns, shown in the micrograph at right, could provide the fibers with greater strength and plasticity.

Thanks to the submerged culture method they have developed, Brown and Rong can monitor just how the growth process occurs. So far they have produced several time-lapse videos that reveal never-before-seen cellular movements within developing cotton fibers. "Using the submerged cotton ovule technique, we have the ability to investigate how the world's finest cotton is produced," Brown adds. "Submerged fibers can give us clues for using genetic engineering to alter or improve fiber traits important in producing yarn and textiles."