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Alternatives to natural latex

World production of natural rubber, fundamentally linked to the Hevea brasiliensis tree, is in danger on a number of fronts

Some natural latexes are the main ingredient in the extraction of natural rubber, an indispensable raw material for all kinds of industries and essential for the manufacture of surgical gloves, condoms or tyres. All the latex used in Europe is imported, extracted fundamentally from the the Hevea brasiliensis tree. The largest producers in the world are Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, three Asian countries that have practically the worldwide monopoly of this resource.

Besides the mentioned problem of the monopoly, world production of natural rubber, fundamentally linked to the Hevea brasiliensis tree, is in danger on a number of fronts. The rubber tree is particularly vulnerable to plagues and illnesses and its cultivation very dependant on quite specific climatic conditions, occurring mainly in the tropical zones of Asia and South America.

The Basque Neiker-Tecnalia technological centre is part of this consortium and its function is to carry out research into, amongst other matters, the genotype and the possibilities of introducing into Europe the two plant species to substitute imported natural latex: the guayule bush (Parthenium argentatum) and the Russian dandelion (Taraxacum kok-saghyz). 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.

Within this project, various aspects of the Russian dandelion will be studied, such as its genome and possibilities of mutagenesis for improving the vigour and yield of the crop, as well as the size of its roots from where the natural latex is extracted. Likewise, the relevant genes involved in the production of latex and rubber will be identified.

Guayule is a crop that has been under study over the last few decades, especially in the U.S. with the goal of increasing the yield and production of its natural rubber. Nevertheless, greater optimisation of its agronomy and its varieties is still required, as well as the development of molecular tools for genetic improvement.

by S. C.
01 february 2010, Technical Area > Science News