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Is Dandelions Future Rubber Biotechnology?

Dandelions often referred to as an annoying weed. But something good is found now. This undemanding plant has now becoming the focus of attention of the rubber-producing industry. Researchers have discovered that dandelions have key components that they can use for rubber production.

Dandelions are the common name of the plant Taraxacum. They are native to North America and Eurasia, but a few species have become global weeds. The rubbery stems of dandelions 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.

Researchers at the Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology (IME) at Germany’s Münster University discovered the protein contained within a fluid located in the plant. They demonstrated, using the example of Russian dandelion, Taraxacum kok-saghyz, there is one special protein (called rubber transferase activator) which plays a key role. If the formation of the protein is prevented then no rubber is formed.

The scientists assume that the protein is necessary for the formation of the rubber-producing protein complex. They also identified an important protein which plays a key role in the formation of the long polyisoprene chains. These polymers give the rubber its typical properties,its elasticity and resilience

The identification of a key protein in dandelions makes natural rubber’s biotechnological production closer to reality. Rubber trees, growing mostly on Southeast Asian plantations, are sensitive plants – giving the optimal yield of raw rubber only under ideal atmospheric conditions, an equal distribution of rainfall and bright sunshine, with the absence of strong winds. They are also extremely sensitive to a plant disease that has devastated rubber plantations in the tree’s original habitat, South America.

On the other hand, Dandelion, are tough weeds, that grow, even in poor soil, and are not overly sensitive to a changing climate.  Russian dandelions can be cultivated from “marginal land,” previously unusable for agriculture.

The dandelion’s roots are smaller than ideal for commercial rubber production. So KeyGene is putting the plant through a process of plant phenotyping in order to develop a variety of dandelion with a fatter root and higher yield, that would be better suited for industrial processing.

Synthetic rubber has been around for more than a century, but quality tires for cars, trucks and aircraft still need up to 40 percent or more natural rubber content.  As the source of natural rubber, the rubber tree, is prone to disease and can be affected by bad weather.  So this will be a new alternative.

While dandelions are quicker to grow than rubber trees, pulling dandelions out of the ground and bashing up the roots to extract latex involves more processing steps than does tapping the bark of a rubber tree. To bring down production costs, genetic modifications can improve rubber production in dandelions.

Unfortunately, there is a lot more work to be done before natural rubber can successfully be mass-produced without using harvested latex. Identifying certain key components used in rubber synthesis works as a major step forward when it comes to making the process possible. Yet in the future, the plants could be used in laboratory experiments to examine the role of the rubber found in them…

We can hope that the dandelions could put the rubber industry through a cost-cutting revolution, and one day, rubber plantations will be a thing of past, and unused sols will be covered by rubber producing yellow flowers.