Allergen-free rubber from dandelions

The elasticity of natural rubber is an essential element in around 30,000 everyday products from car tyres, catheter tubes and latex gloves to tops for drinks bottles, but it can also cause fatal allergic reactions. Now another problem is confronting rubber producers, most of whom are in South East Asia. A fungus which has already all but wiped out rubber tree cultivation in South America now seems to have spread to South East Asia’s rubber belt. Researchers are therefore turning to other sources of natural rubber/latex – such as the Russian dandelion.

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 and sticky, it is a much sought-after natural latex.

Germans, Russians and Americans produced rubber from this plant during the Second World War but it was difficult to use as, once it is cut, latex seeps out and polymerises (goes through a chemical reaction) immediately. However, scientists from the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology IME in Aachen have managed to identify the enzyme responsible for the rapid polymerisation and discovered how to switch it off.

If the plant is cut, the researchers say, the latex flows out instead of being polymerised so that they can obtain four to five times the amount they would normally. This means that if the plants were to be cultivated on a large scale, every hectare would produce 500–1,000 kilogrammes of latex per growing season.

The dandelion rubber has not caused any allergies so far, making it ideal for use in hospitals. Moreover, the dandelion is not just suitable for rubber production: the plant also produces substantial quantities of inulin, a natural sweetener. The researchers reckon that it will take them around five years to cultivate the optimised plants using conventional breeding techniques – and be ready to create dandelion rubber!

For a fuller report

A further report in Science Daily describes two new European projects investigating the possibilites of two plant species as an alterniative to natural rubber latex – the guayule bush (Parthenium argentatum) and the Russian dandelion (Taraxacum kok-saghyz) – see above. Guayule is considered to be the most promising crop for Mediterranean zones while the Russian dandelion turns out to be more suitable for northern and eastern Europe.

The technical performance and economic potential of rubber extracted from guayule and the Russian dandelion are being evaluated through the production of specific prototypes, such as for surgical gloves or tyres. Likewise, the consortium anticipates the creation of a network of collaboration between European research and industrial organisations, to pool knowledge with scientists and government bodies so that Europe does not have to depend so much on imported natural latex.

First published February 2010


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