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Scientists have genetically modified cotton to make its seeds — which are full of high-quality protein — fit for human consumption.

The research published this week in Proceedings of the National Academies of Science has the potential to feed half a billion people worldwide each year.

For every kilogram of fibre produced by cotton, the plant releases 1.65 kilograms of seed. These contain a toxin called gossypol that protects the crops from insects and pathogens and can only be digested by ruminant animals such as cattle.

The genetically modified cotton plants produce seeds with 98 per cent less gossypol, but have normal levels of the toxin in the rest of the plant, preserving its chemical defences.

Deborah Delmer, associate director of the Rockefeller Foundation in New York, United States, and an expert in agricultural food safety, says that the method — which turns off a gene process rather than introducing a new protein — raises less safety concerns than other genetic modification technologies.

But she adds that extensive field trials are still needed to test the plant's stability over many generations.

Link to full article in Nature

Link to abstract in Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences