Bangladesh develops improved cotton varieties using nuclear techniques

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Bangladesh has collaborated with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to develop new varieties of cotton that are more productive and have better fibre quality, according to the IAEA.   

Cotton is one of Bangladesh’s most important cash crops, and the new variety – CDB Tula 1 – developed using nuclear technology in a record period of 5 years, was released and registered earlier this year, the IAEA said in a press release. This variety was developed in a third of the time that it usually takes to develop new varieties using traditional methods, and half the time it usually takes when using nuclear techniques.   

The new cotton variety is being planted at 13 different locations in Bangladesh and over 1,000 farmers are receiving training on the planting procedure, IAEA said. Known worldwide for its organic cotton fabric called muslin, the Bangladesh textile industry directly employs over four million people — 80 percent of them women — and provides livelihood to millions of farmers.  

“Mutation breeding is a new area of research for us and we now have this new cotton variant, which can be grown in a short period of time. We expect this fast pace growth will increase yields and farmers’ income by 40 percent,” Bangladesh Cotton Development Board’s Senior Scientific Officer and Project Director, Kamrul Islam, said. 

Once widely used, the new variety is expected to bring macroeconomic benefits to the country as well. Due to lack of sufficient, high quality domestic supply, the country’s cotton industry is currently dependent on imports. The alteration of the dry and the monsoon seasons makes Bangladesh cotton particularly vulnerable, and the lack of a stable, year-round water supply has caused huge losses in yields.  Thus, developing varieties that are tolerant to climate extremes and that grow at a quicker pace has been important for Bangladesh, Islam added. 

According to the IAEA, irradiating cotton seeds with gamma rays to induce more variation, followed by selection for performance allowed for the development of the CDB Tula 1 variety, which is high yielding, drought tolerant and resistant to diseases, while delivering a third crop per year thanks to its shorter maturity and lack of sensitivity to the length of daylight. 

“Nuclear technology is helping scientists unmask the hidden potential in plants, allowing plant breeders to develop crop varieties with improved traits. By using radiation and related technologies to rapidly breed improved varieties, productivity can be accelerated”, said Ljupcho Jankuloski, Plant Breeder and Geneticist at the joint FAO-IAEA Centre and the technical officer for the project.  

“Exchanging experience on breeding methods specific to cotton also played a role in the success of Bangladeshi scientists. Such regional cooperation strengthens the efforts to address a crop such as cotton with common regional importance”, said Massoud Malek the IAEA Programme Management Officer facilitating this regional cooperation in Asia. 

Mutation breeding is cost effective and quicker than conventional breeding as it helps create numerous new genetic variations for a wider selection. Initiated in 2016, the Bangladesh Cotton Development Board’s first cotton mutation breeding programme works with farmers in Jessore, Rangpur, Dhaka and Chittagong. 

According to the IAEA, plant breeding is the process of exposing plant seeds, cuttings or other planting material to radiation, such as X-rays or gamma rays. Induced irradiation causes changes in the DNA, mimicking the natural process of spontaneous mutations and creates genetic diversity in the cotton population. Those exhibiting the desired traits continue to be cultivated and multiplied so they can be distributed to farmers around the country.