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The challenge

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.

Every cotton fibre is a single cell

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.

Our response

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.

[Image appears of Madeline Mitchell smiling at the camera]

Interviewer: What are you looking forward to most in this research?

[Image changes to show a female ironing a singlet on an ironing board]

Madeline Mitchell: Being able to throw out my ironing board. 

[Image changes to show a researcher putting cotton plants under a light and then the image changes to show garments moving around in a front loading washing machine]

At CSIRO we’re working on developing the next generation of cotton that doesn’t need to be ironed after washing or treated with chemicals. 

[Image changes to show Madeline talking to the camera and text appears: Madeline Mitchell, CSIRO Scientist]

We’re creating cotton that has all the advantages of synthetic fibres such as polyester to make fabrics that are stretchable and don’t need ironing. 

[Image changes to show a rear view of a male walking through a cotton field]

Cotton gets a pretty bad rap environmentally but it’s actually a sustainable material, unlike synthetic fibres. 

[Images move through of Madeline talking to the camera, microplastics in water, a stormwater pipe discharging into the sea, and an underwater view of fish in the water]

Synthetic fibres are made out of petro-chemicals to begin with and every time you wash clothes made from synthetic fabrics they release tens of thousands of tiny pieces of micro plastic into the environment, our oceans and our waterways. 

[Image changes to show cotton seeds being poured through the hands and then the image changes to show cotton bolls on the plants in a cotton field]

At CSIRO we’ve already produced over 100 cotton varieties and our latest ones use up to 85% less pesticides and 50% less herbicides. 

[Image changes to show researchers looking at cotton plants and the camera zooms in on the researchers inspecting a cotton plant]

Nearly every cotton plant growing in Australia has been bred by the CSIRO and Australian cotton is among the best quality and most water efficient in the world.

[Image changes to show t-shirts hanging on a washing line and blowing in the breeze and then the image changes to show Madeline talking to the camera]

With this latest research we plan to make your life easier, your wardrobe more sustainable and keep Australia’s cotton industry at the forefront of global innovation.

[Music plays and the CSIRO logo and text appears: CSIRO Australia’s innovation catalyst]

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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.

The results

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.

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