Not having to iron a cotton shirt and fighting all the creases after being washed or worn could become a reality with a team of CSIRO scientists embarking on a new project developing the next generation of cotton.
The CSIRO research team is aiming to grow a plant with the characteristics of synthetics, providing a stretchy, non-creasing and waterproof fibre, which also retains its natural feel.
CSIRO senior research scientist Colleen MacMillan said the team was looking into the structure of cotton cell walls, and putting molecules into the cell walls, giving the plant new properties.
“We use special molecular tools called synthetic biology tools that are inspired by nature and exist in nature to produce the next generation of cotton,” Dr MacMillan said.
She said the idea was to have a plant that could produce new natural fibres that had some of the properties of synthetics.
But rather than using chemicals to produce synthetic fibres that are from non-renewable sources and break down into microplastics polluting the ocean, the research team was using the cotton plant to produce the natural fibres in a renewable way.
The fibres could then break down in the environment.
“It’s a brand new natural fibre that we hope will be good for the planet,” she said.
“The synthetic microfibre pollution problem is looming as extremely huge.
“So, the microplastics that are ending up in the oceans are now also ending up in animals, in fish, in humans, in our soils and even in table salt — and that is bad.”
A landmark study on microfibres, published by University of New South Wales ecologist Mark Browne in 2011, claimed microfibres constituted more than 85 per cent of plastic pollution on the world’s shores.
Consumer demand shifts toward sustainable fashion
Australia’s cotton industry is valued at $2.5 billion, and renowned for its high-quality production and for being the most water-efficient in the world.
Dr MacMillan said consumer demand for sustainable materials — especially textiles — was starting to rise and beyond that international and national retailers were pushing for more sustainable materials in the textile industry.
She said if the new research was successful, consumers would be able to choose more sustainable textiles to wear that are of high quality, longer lasting, and better for the environment.
Cotton Australia’s board chairman Hamish McIntyre said human-made fibres were cotton growers’ biggest competition and creating new cotton traits where consumers did not have to iron, making it a more wearable product, would help the industry and benefit the consumer.
“Anything that we can do to improve our fibre to make it more sellable to a broader section of the community is a good thing for us,” Mr McIntyre said.
He said ironing had always been an issue with cotton compared to human-made fibres but he hoped this next generation of cotton would allow growers to take back some of the market share from human-made fibres.
And although non-iron shirts already existed, consumers and the environment would benefit from non-iron shirts that were made from natural fibre, such as cotton.
“The more we can reduce them [human-made fibres], and if we can achieve these traits and wearing quality via plant breeding, the better it is for the industry as a whole.”
Challenges and potential benefits for Australian cotton growers
Although the development of the next generation of cotton by the CSIRO research team could benefit Australian cotton growers to sell their crop at a higher price and move their commodity even in times of oversupply due to trait development advantages, there are also challenges.
Mr McIntryre said it was important to keep in mind that other types and traits of cotton were essential to keep Australia’s industry viable.
“Yield is still the most important part, so we have to keep adding whatever traits we can but not reduce yields because cost of production is way higher in Australia than in the rest of the world,” he said.
“Practically we can’t just chase one trait or one type of cotton.
“It has to fit our complete system and our scientists historically have shown that they can do that, so it is very exiting that they came up with it but let’s see how it works over time.”
Dr MacMillan said one limitation to their research was having enough people and time to repeat experiments.
However, she said their aim was to future-proof the Australian cotton industry into the next century with the development of the next generation of cotton because other countries were catching up on good yields and quality cotton.