Children’s coloring books often feature unusual hues: purple trees, blue bushes, orange grass. . . . But thanks to researchers in Australia, odd-colored plants may start popping up in a cotton field near you.
Humans have been spinning, weaving, and dying cotton for thousands of years. Folks in ancient China, Egypt, and India all wove cotton fabric. God wisely created this fluffy natural fiber to be renewable, recyclable, and biodegradable.
There’s something else true of most cotton: “Cotton is naturally white,” says Dr. Colleen MacMillan. She works with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO). (A few cotton varieties have some muted colors naturally, but those fibers are not strong enough to weave into durable cloth.)
Historic artifacts show that even the earliest cotton users dyed the fibers to make colorful fabrics. But dyes can pollute soil and water. Black dyes are considered especially harmful. Other dyes can produce dangerous substances as they decompose. Still others never completely break down.
“The use of dyes is something that can have an impact on the environment, so to move to cotton that was naturally colored through these scientific techniques would be a wonderful improvement,” says Adam Kay of Cotton Australia. That organization helps promote cotton in the Land Down Under.
Now scientists at CSIRO have learned to grow colored cotton—right on the plant! This genetics breakthrough could change the future of fabric and perhaps the entire fashion industry.
MacMillan leads the CSIRO team that cracked cotton’s color code. First, her group injected tobacco plants with colored genes. The doctored tobacco leaves emerged with colored splotches. Scientists see that as proof that cotton fibers could be colored too.
“We’ve seen some really beautiful bright yellows, sort of golden-orangey colors, through to some really deep purple,” says scientist Filomena Pettolino.
MacMillan recalls the first tinted tobacco leaves in her lab. She says the curious sight “brought a tear to my eye.”
CSIRO researchers are watching the cotton fields. They wait to see whether their bio-hacked plants produce flowers—and a dazzling array of colored cotton.
If naturally growing colored cotton becomes a reality, Australia’s cotton industry will benefit. Plus, Pettolino thinks favoring cotton over synthetic fabrics would help protect the environment and keep costs down.
Cotton scientists have other goals too. They hope to engineer plant fibers that remain wrinkle-free and stretchy. So-called “super cottons” would be able to compete with other manmade fabrics.
MacMillan says if the experiment works, “Having the cotton plant produce its own colored fiber is a game changer.”