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Pectin Plays Key Role in Fiber Quality

By Tara Weaver-Missick
June 3, 1999

Agricultural Research Service scientists have discovered that pectin, a jelly-like substance, on cotton fiber walls appears to play a key role in controlling fiber quality. This discovery could lead to new ways to improve fiber length and strength.

ARS plant physiologists Kevin C. Vaughn and Rickie B. Turley, in Stoneville, Miss., found that cotton fibers have a layer of pectin around their cells that is not present in other parts of the plant. The scientists say this pectin layer appears to allow cotton fibers to elongate. This lengthening leads to more fiber, the fluffy white part taken directly from the boll.

This discovery was a surprise to Vaughn, who is with ARS’ Southern Weed Science Research Unit, because his work and many other scientists’ work has always focused on how cellulose--the major component of the plant cell wall--affects fiber quality and length, rather than how pectin has.

The ARS scientists found that mutations or certain herbicide treatments can alter cotton fiber. In lab studies, when they altered pectin amounts, they found either cotton fiber did not grow or its physical characteristics were changed, such as short squatty fibers versus long fibers.

Vaughn and Turley, who is with ARS’ Crop Genetics and Production Research Unit, are trying to identify the enzymes responsible for producing fiber pectin. Ultimately, identifying those enzymes will help to improve fiber length and quality.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific research agency.

Scientific contact: Kevin C. Vaughn, ARS Southern Weed Science Research Unit, Stoneville, Miss., (phone) 601-686-5211, (fax), 601-686-5422,