Eric Hequet and a team of researchers with Texas Tech University's International Textile Center have unveiled a groundbreaking reference method to determine cotton fiber maturity. Maturity is directly related to economically important fiber strength.
Texas Tech University researchers are pushing toward development of genetically improved cotton varieties with enhanced fiber maturity, while retaining all other valuable quality characteristics important for entering profitable high-end clothing markets.
After measuring more than 1.6 million individual fibers the scientists established a reference method to determine cotton fiber maturity. This will allow the development of germplasm with enhanced maturity and could provide DNA markers, making incorporation of these genes easier for breeders.
"Even though maturity isn't measured commercially today, it's one of the most important quality attributes," said Eric Hequet, an expert in fiber property at Texas Tech's International Textile Center. "It's directly related to fiber strength. Stronger fibers will minimize fiber damage during mechanical processing (harvesting and ginning), which will result in longer cottons with lower short fiber content."
South Plains producers face a short growing season. The traditional short-season varieties grown here had a shorter length, which generally limited their use to mass-market types of products such as denim. New breeds of cotton introduced recently are producing higher quality fibers, and higher yield, said Dean Ethridge, managing director of the International Textile Center.
"It is a matter of meeting the market's needs," he said. "The ring-spun cotton yarns suitable for making fine, light-weight cotton textiles require cotton fibers that are long, strong and fine. However, it is a given that the cotton fibers must be adequately matured."
Hundreds of genes affect cotton maturity, and biotechnologists have spent the past five years pinpointing likely candidates. The process hasn't been easy, largely due to a lack of standardized scientific benchmarks that reflect maturity.
The common industry standard is micronaire, a critical cotton fiber quality that is harder to visualize than other properties like staple length, fiber strength or color. The micronaire measurement results from a combination of both the maturity and fineness of cotton fibers, but it cannot separate the two properties.
Noureddine Abidi, a polymer chemist with Texas Tech University's International Textile Center, begins testing a cotton sample for maturity. A single fiber - no bigger than a human hair - is evaluated using infrared microscopy and image analysis of cotton fiber cross-sections.
"Micronaire readings don't tell us whether the fiber is coarse and immature or fine and mature," Hequet said. "We want a fiber that is both fine and mature. If a fiber is fine, you'll be able to put many more fibers in the same yarn diameter, which means you'll have a stronger yarn, and ultimately a stronger garment."
Hequet, along with colleague Noureddine Abidi, a polymer chemist, designed a series of laboratory tests that focused on the specific fiber structure attributes and developed a workable maturity reference method.
Like a funnel, each tool looked at an ever smaller portion of cotton until a single fiber no bigger than a human hair was being evaluated using infrared microscopy and image analysis of cotton fiber cross-sections. They spent four years and examined 1.6 million cotton fibers to develop the necessary methods needed to accurately determine maturity.
"It's a long and complicated process," Abidi said. "But now we expect to identify the most promising candidates provided by breeders and biotechnologists later this year."
Texas, the nation's largest cotton producer, produced a record 8.2 million bales of the fluffy white fiber last year, which was 38 percent of the total U.S. crop.
The International Textile Center, a department in Texas Tech's College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, is an internationally recognized facility for textile research, testing and evaluation. The 110,000 square-foot facility near Lubbock serves a broad audience from yarn and fabric manufacturers to cotton breeders.
Eric Hequet, associate director of the International Textile Center, Texas Tech University, College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, (806) 747-3790.
Visit Dr. Hequet's faculty page
Norman Martin, Communications and Marketing Specialist, College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, (806) 742-4108.
Cory Chandler, Office of Communications and Marketing, 806-742-2136.