Jonathan Wendel, Botany, (515) 294-7172
Brian Meyer, Agriculture, (515) 294-0706
Steve Sullivan, News Service, (515) 294-3720


AMES, Iowa -- Jonathan Wendel is the largest cotton farmer in Iowa, a state better known for corn and soybeans.

His "farm" is in the Pohl Conservatory on top of Iowa State University's Bessey Hall, where Wendel, a botany professor, tends several wild relatives of cotton, gathered from around the world. He has traveled the world to study and collect cotton species. He discovered a new species in northwest Australia.

Wendel has spent years making genealogical connections among cotton species. He adds branches to cotton's family tree -- information that may lead to improvements in corn and soybeans.

"I work on the coolest stuff," said Wendel, picking up a cotton boll lying on his desk. "Each fiber you see is a single cell. Incredible. Nothing in nature matches it."

The world has 50 species of cotton. Some are dingy, scraggly specimens compared with the pristine puffball of modern cultivated cotton. Others are as coarse as a Brillo pad compared to the satiny feel of today's fibers.

As a University of North Carolina graduate student, Wendel became intrigued by a botanical mystery surrounding cotton involving a genetic reunion. Five to 10 million years ago, cotton split into two separate groups. The two kinds of cotton spent a few million years evolving in isolation, one in the Americas and the other in Africa and Asia. Then, 1 to 2 million years ago, an Old World seed somehow made it to the New World.

The two kinds of cotton hooked up again to become a polyploid, a plant with double the number of genes. The result of the reunion was several new species, including one that has become the most important cultivated cotton grown today.

Corn and soybeans share a similar history, Wendel said. They are polyploids, too. Little is known about how becoming a polyploid affects a crop.

"All of a sudden, a plant has twice the normal number of genes," Wendel said. "How do doubled genes co-exist in the nucleus? Are many simply redundant? Do some, finding themselves freed from their housekeeping roles, take on new functions? These are the kinds of questions we're asking. What we learn about cotton will apply to corn and soybeans."

Wendel has received funding from Iowa State's Plant Sciences Institute to study the importance of polyploidy, using cotton as a model. He is comparing doubled genes in polyploid cotton to their nondoubled counterparts in ancestral cotton. Wendel uses molecular technologies to calculate genetic differences among cotton species. These differences can help establish an evolutionary time line.

"If we understand the genealogy, then we can go after the genes themselves -- the genes that turn a wizened boll of wild cotton into a robust modern boll," said Wendel. Wendel is one of five principal investigators with the Cotton Genome Center, a National Science Foundation-funded program headquartered at the University of California, Davis.

Using new genomic information, he is tracing the evolutionary events that permitted the development of modern cotton. The information will be used in the search for key genes that control growth and development of cotton fiber.

"With all this new genomic information, I feel like I'm in a tropical forest, turning over rocks and discovering new beasts. Every plant has a story," said Wendel.


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