The average car tire is roughly one part natural rubber (thank you, rubber tree) and four parts synthetic material (thank you, petroleum industry). It turns out you just can’t make a good tire without at least a little bit of the real thing thrown in there—and while rubber trees aren’t exactly a finite resource, chopping them down takes the form of clear cutting rainforest and they are slow to grow back.
Enter the lowly dandelion. It turns out that one species of the weed, Taraxacum kok-saghyz (TKS), produces rubber molecules. Conservation Magazine reports that scientists in Germany “have identified the genes that allow TKS to produce usable rubber.”
Meanwhile, Matthew Kleinhenz of Ohio State University is working on increasing the yield of rubber from TKS. Kleinhenz is doing things the old-fashioned way, growing different strains of TKS, grinding up the roots (where sap is found) to see which have the highest rubber content, and cross-breeding the winners. His aim is to create a plant that is high-yielding and has roots chunky enough to be harvested mechanically.
Combining the two approaches—high-tech bioengineering and low-tech plant breeding—may produce a whole new crop species. It would also mark a step on a journey that some see as the way forward: a return to the use of plant-based products that have been overshadowed by the availability of cheap oil.
I can’t help myself—this effort needs a theme song…
Source: Conservation Magazine
Image by jurvetson, licensed under Creative Commons.