We're creating cotton with many of the properties of synthetics, such as being stretchy, non-creasing and even waterproof, while remaining biodegradable.
A natural, sustainable fibre that mimics synthetics
Synthetic fibres can be cheaper to produce but they are made with petrochemicals. Every time you wash synthetics like polyester and nylon, thousands of tiny microfibres of material are pulled free and enter our waterways. These are not degradable and can build up in the food chain.
When you wash cotton, fibres are also shed but these are biodegradable and break down naturally in the environment.
In many cases, people prefer synthetic fibres because they have properties that cotton doesn't, e.g. you don't need to iron them. But cotton has the benefit of having a soft, natural feel and it 'breathes'.
Cotton is a $2.5 billion industry in Australia but globally the synthetics market dominates and is on the rise. To stay ahead of the competition in synthetics as well as other cotton producing nations, we're hoping to develop a truly unique natural and renewable fibre.
Getting to know cotton fibre cells
Every cotton fibre is a single cell with a specialised cell wall. So our first step in developing this new cotton is to better understand what genes and external factors determine the length, strength and thickness of cotton fibres.
A wide range of different cotton plants are being grown, some with long, thin fibres and others with short, thick fibres. This allows our scientists to analyse the structure of cotton cell walls and understand the biology of fibre quality.
At the same time, researchers are identifying molecules that already exist in nature and seeing how the latest tools in synthetic biology will help put these into cotton cell walls to change the way cotton fibres behave.
The next generation cotton research is part of CSIRO's Synthetic Biology Future Science Platform, a $13 million investment in science that applies engineering principles to biology. SynBio projects aim to provide societal benefits and opportunities for a wide range of industries. Cotton Breeding Australia, a joint venture between CSIRO and Cotton Seed Distributors is also supporting this research.
It's still early days
Our research into next generation cotton is just getting underway and while we don't yet have new textiles to play with we've already made in-roads into understanding what genetic networks are important in making this unique cotton fibre cell.
We know that gene players in these networks influence fibre length and strength. We also know that it is possible to add new natural components to cotton cell walls and to change how fibres behave, without chemical treatments. We're really excited about these promising results that could transform the cotton industry.