Cotton boll and planet Earth

The ISS Cotton Sustainability Challenge

Cotton is an integral part of our daily lives. Many of the consumer products that we use today, from t-shirts, to jeans, to bed sheets, to coffee filters, are derived from cotton. It is estimated that more than 25 million tons of cotton are produced around the world each year.  While the economic and personal benefits of cotton are well understood, the environmental impacts of cotton production are significant. It is estimated that to produce one kilogram of cotton requires thousands of liters of water.

Additionally, the intensive use of agricultural chemicals in cotton farming and production can have health impacts on workers and surrounding ecosystems. Organizations around the world are looking for new and innovative ways to address this critical issue over the next few decades.

The ISS Cotton Sustainability Challenge invited leading researchers in the fields of life sciences, physical sciences and remote sensing to propose new experiments on the ISS to address cotton sustainability.

Congratulations to the Winners!

Field Scale, Aggregated Best Management Practice Verification and Monitoring
Marshall Moutenot, Upstream Tech (Alameda, CA)

Upstream is a public benefit corporation with the mission to create economic forces that drive environmental conservation. To do so, Upstream has created a customizable and scalable machine learning platform that utilizes data from Earth-observation satellites to inform and empower public, corporate, and nonprofit sectors to make evidence-based decisions related to water use, management, and conservation. Upstream proposes to leverage ISS remote sensing imagery to expand the capabilities of its “Best Management Practice Assessment and Real-time Monitoring” platform to enable the automated monitoring and analysis of cotton agriculture and inform Target’s production-related water use goals for sustainable cotton production.

Unlocking the Cotton Genome to Precision Genetics
Christopher Saski, Clemson University (Clemson, SC)

This project proposes to use the tools of genetic sequencing to examine gene expression, DNA methylation patterns, and genome sequences of three different cotton cultivars using embryogenic callus material (plant embryos that are formed from somatic plant cells not normally involved in plant embryogenesis and development). Each of the cotton cultivars responds and regenerates differently when grown in tissue culture on Earth. In the absence of gravity, the differences between cotton cultivars during the process of regeneration—and their ability to grow from embryogenic callus material—may be affected and could reveal new insights into the genetics of plant growth and regeneration. A better understanding of these processes (and differences between cultivars) will advance fundamental biological knowledge and could improve our ability to grow cotton plants that more efficiently use water and adapt to changing environments.

Targeting the Roots of Cotton Sustainability
Simon Gilroy, University of Wisconsin (Madison, WI)

Roots play a central role in a host of plant functions that are critical to plant survival. The ability of cotton plants to produce cotton bolls and survive stress requires that their root systems provide water and nutrients. Cotton plants that overexpress the AVP1 gene show increased resistance to stressors such as higher salinity and drought and yield 20% more cotton fiber under these conditions, which normally limit cotton productivity. These stress-resistant features have been tentatively linked to an enhanced root system that can explore a wider and deeper volume of soil for water and nutrients. Such exploration patterns are inextricably linked to gravity, which directs the growth of main and lateral roots. The ISS National Lab provides a unique opportunity to investigate which environmental factors and genes control cotton root-system development and function in the absence of gravity-related patterning. This experiment will assess the degree to which root system architecture influences stress resilience, water-use efficiency, and carbon sequestration during the critical phase of seedling establishment.