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Dandelions Tell Us the Secrets of Natural Rubber

Apr 28, 2015 01:54 PM EDT
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Dandelions: one lawn's weed is another lawn's flower. That has long been the root of one of the least import debates in lawn care history (seriously, it's spring! we LIKE yellow flowers). However, for some time now the little flowers have also been used in the natural production of rubber. Apparently, the dandelions could even put the rubber industry through a cost-cutting revolution, but first experts need to better understand how exactly they work.

If you've ever spent a lazy day picking at dandelions, you probably know that their rubbery stems are packed with a sticky and milky fluid - often referred to as latex. This fluid is produced by specialized cells within the dandelion stem that pump out globular particles filled with polyisoprene, the main component of rubber.

Naturally, the rubber industry could use dandelions to supply their latex demand, but efficient production would take countless fields of the yellow weed. That's why the use of rubber trees (Hevea brasiliensis) has long been preferred. Unfortunately, rubber trees are very vulnerable to blight and require a great deal of pest control and growing space.

And while natural latex has been used in rubber production for over a century, experts didn't really know how exactly it worked. If they did, they could do away with rubber tree plantations entirely, cutting costs and opening up a great deal of farmland. (Scroll to read on...)

Now, a study recently published in the journal Nature Plants has revealed in an analysis of Russian dandelions that a specialized protein (called a rubber transferase activator) is utterly essential for latex production. When creation of this protein was inhibited by researchers at Münster University, the rubbery, milky fluid normally found within the plants disappeared.

This served as a proof-of-concept for the mechanism behind natural rubber production, but hinted at only one key component. That's a lot like trying to bake a cake, but only understanding that you need eggs. What about flour? Sugar? Water?

A second study featured in the same paper builds upon this work, indentifying another key protein in the formation of long polyisoprene chains - which contributes to rubber's elasticity and resilience.

"Dandelions have become well-known recently in particular as a result of applied research," Christian Schulze Gronover, who helped lead the research, said in a statement. "Now we are pleased to have some news again from the field of basic research: we have been able to identify no fewer than two key components of rubber biosynthesis."

Still, there is a lot more work to be done before natural rubber can successfully be mass-produced without using harvested latex. Still, the hope is that one day rubber plantations will be a thing of the past, and we will have the unassuming dandelion to thank.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

- follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS

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