How Multi-Colored Mutant Cotton Could Help Save The Planet

A fleet of tractors harvests cotton (white non-gene edited variety) in Brazil. lourencolf/Shutterstock

Dying textiles can take a nasty toll on both human health and the environment, flooding local water systems with a cocktail of bleaches and often harmful chemical dyes. However, scientists may have developed a new way to overcome this problem by tweaking some genes of the cotton plant to produce multi-colored mutants that don't need dyeing. 

Scientists at the Australian agency for scientific research, CSIRO, have recently been toying with the idea of using gene editing to change the color of natural fibers of the cotton plant. All of Australia's cotton is grown from CSIRO varieties, so they have a vested interest. While their experiments have so far only produced colored cotton in a petri dish, the team hopes to fine-tune their research and eventually get these crops growing in the real world. 

"Having the cotton produce its own color is a game-changer," Dr Colleen MacMillan who leads the team of CSIRO scientists told ABC News.

"We've seen some really beautiful bright yellows, sort of golden-orangey colors, through to some really deep purple," added Filomena Pettolino, who is also working on the project. 

The team has also reportedly made naturally black cotton, which is especially handy as black dyes are among the most destructive for the environment.

Cotton ready for harvest in Oakey, Queensland, Australia. TPStock/Shutterstock

Although the fuel industry and agriculture are often seen as the boogeymen of environmental destruction, the textile industry is not free of guilt by any means, making up about 10 percent of global carbon emissions. The advent of “fash fashion” now sees between 80 to 100 billion pieces of clothing produced each year. Not only does this create a colossal amount of physical waste, the production of textiles often involves shady supply chains and practices that are deeply harmful to the environment. 

Water use is a huge problem. Cotton is a very thirsty crop, needing 2,700 liters of water to make just one cotton T-shirt. This puts a huge strain on resources in parts of the world where water is not freely available. 

While this new experimental gene-edited cotton won’t solve this specific problem of water use, it does address the issue of harmful dyes and contaminated water. Since the dying process often requires heaps of water, textile dyes can end up in natural water systems. This can cause a range of problems, namely darkening the water and messing with its subtle biochemical balance, which can impair photosynthesis, inhibit plant growth, and may promote toxicity. It’s a surprisingly widespread problem too, with 20 percent of global industrial water pollution coming directly from the garment manufacturing industry.

Increasing awareness of this problem has led to growing momentum within the sustainable fashion movement. Even big brands are jumping on the bandwagon and looking to help solve the problem through developing technology that allows water-free dying.

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