September 10, 2009
Most natural rubber comes from rubber trees in Southeast Asia, but this source is now under threat from a fungus. Researchers have optimized the Russian dandelion to make it suitable for large-scale rubber production.
Anyone who has picked dandelions as a child will be familiar with the white liquid that seeps out of the stalks as you break them off. Viscous, sticky "“ and a much sought-after material: natural latex. Around 30,000 everyday products contain natural rubber, everything from car tires, catheter tubes, latex gloves to tops for drinks bottles. Car tires, for instance, would not be elastic enough without the incorporation of natural rubber. The bulk of this material comes from rubber trees in Southeast Asia. Rubber produced in this way can, however, cause allergic reactions, which is clearly an issue with clinical products. A fungus is also creating concern for rubber cultivators. In South America the infection is now so widespread that large-scale cultivation has become virtually impossible. The disease now also appears to have taken root in Southeast Asia's rubber belt. Fungicides still provide at least temporary protection. But if the fungus disease was to reach epidemic proportions, chemical crop protection would be rendered useless "“ experts fear that the natural latex industry could collapse if that were to happen.
In the lab the researchers have genetically modified the dandelion. Their next step will involve cultivating the optimized plants using conventional breeding techniques. In around five years, Prfer estimates, they may well have achieved their goal. In any case, the dandelion is not just suitable for rubber production: the plant also produces substantial quantities of inulin, a natural sweetener.
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