Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/09/11/fraunhofer_rubber_dandelions/

Germans satisfy latex desire with GM dandelions

No more uncomfortable rashes - fungus plague forestalled

By Lewis Page

Posted in Science, 11th September 2009 14:48 GMT

German boffins have worked out a much improved method of making latex using the sticky white fluid which comes out of dandelion stems. The new breakthough could mean more comfortable body-cavity searches, an end to itchy condoms, and might free humanity from the threat posed by a global rubber fungus epidemic.

According (pdf page 5) to top rubber experts at Germany's famed Fraunhofer Institutes, any fule kno that natural rubber comes out of dandelion stems. Indeed, when latex products were vitally necessary for the war effort during the mass military mobilisation of World War Two, various combatant nations fell back on the sticky white sap as a source of extra supplies.

However, the sticky dandelion latex is difficult to harvest properly as it polymerises - turns gummy - as soon as air hits it. Thus to date the normal source of supply has been rubber plants in South America and Southeast Asia. Latex from these trees flows rather than turning sticky at once, and so is easier to collect.

But tree rubber can cause painful allergic reactions such as itchiness or rashes, which as the Fraunhofer brainboxes note "is clearly an issue with clinical products" - for instance cavity-search gloves or prophylactics. Not to mention the specialist recreational apparel popular in certain circles.

Worse, a deadly global pandemic of fungus has already largely eradicated the rubber farms of Latin America, and is now beginning to devastate the plantations of Malaysia et al.

"If the fungus disease was to reach epidemic proportions," warn the German scientists, "experts fear that the natural latex industry could collapse".

But have no fear. Premier-league dandelion rubber boffin Professor Doktor Dirk Prüfer of the Fraunhofer-Instituts für Molekularbiologie und Angewandte Oekologie has the answer.

“We have identified the enzyme responsible for the rapid polymerization and have switched it off,” he says. “If the plant is cut, the latex flows out instead of being polymerized. We obtain four to five times the amount we would normally. If the plants were to be cultivated on a large scale, every hectare would produce 500 to 1000 kilograms of latex per growing season.”

Better still, the unsticky weed-sap rubber apparently doesn't cause any painful itching or redness as the normal sort can.

Fields of Doktor Prüfer's genetically modified dandelions, then, could produce tons of lovely allergy-free rubber no matter what happens in terms of globo-fungus pandemics. As a fringe benefit, it seems they also produce significant quantities of artificial sweetener. ®