Published on September 16th, 2009 | by Derek Markham2
Dandelions Could Save Natural Rubber Industry from Fungus Epidemic
Natural rubber is in high demand by our modern culture – it’s found in 30,000 products, from car tires to latex gloves and condoms – but the traditional source for the latex is under assault from a deadly fungal disease, Microcyclus ulei, which attacks the leaves of the rubber tree. Some experts in the industry believe that a fungal pandemic could wipe out the world’s natural latex rubber supply unless an alternative is found. Enter the humble dandelion.
Break the stem of an ordinary dandelion and a sticky substance leaks out: natural latex. During World War II, the Russians, Germans, and the U.S. experimented with producing rubber made from the dandelion latex, but yields were low due to the tendency for the sticky substance to polymerize (to get thick and gummy) quickly instead of flowing.
Recently, however, scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology have genetically modified a variety of dandelion with free-flowing latex, turning off the enzyme responsible for the polymerization.
The new genetically modified dandelions can boost the amount produced by four or five times, up to 1000 kilos of latex per hectare, and according to the researchers, the next step is cultivating the new variety using conventional breeding techniques. They estimate that in about five years, they will have achieved their goal of large scale production of dandelion latex.
One added benefit to using dandelions for latex is the hypoallergenic nature of the dandelion rubber. Latex from the rubber tree can provoke an allergic reaction in some people, which is an issue in the medical field, but the dandelion latex doesn’t seem to cause the usual itching or redness. Another beneficial aspect to dandelion cultivation is the fact that the plant also produces substantial quantities of a natural sweetener called inulin.
The majority of natural latex rubber comes from plantations in Southeast Asia, where the fungus has been making inroads on the trees, as well as South America, whose rubber trees have been virtually wiped out by M. ulei. Scientists are now working to breed Pará rubber trees (Hevea brasiliensis) resistant to the fungus, but the current method for control is through spraying of fungicides.