Dandelions a Natural Source of Latex

Written by: Captain Skellett // September 22nd, 2009 // How Things Work

Latex, where would we be without you? You make the gloves we scientists are so fond of donning, protecting our nail polish from the acetone we use to wash glasswear. You make balloons in all shapes, sizes and colours. You make condoms in the same fashion. Like duct tape your uses are innumerable, like attraction when one end pulls away, the other wants to snap back together.

Latex can be harvested naturally or made synthetically. Natural latex mostly comes from rubber trees in massive plantations in Southeast Asia, the kind that destroy habitats and are tended by workers with shocking living conditions like you learned about in school. Rubber trees always remind me of Monkey Island Three, where you cut down a rubber tree and throw it in the Lager Toss and it bounces, so you beat the strong Scottish guy and he thinks you’re so hardcore he joins your crew – LOVE that game! But not the point.

Hevea Brasiliensis, the rubber tree, has been used as a source of latex on a commercial level since the 19th century. Most plantations are made by veritable clones of a single, high yield tree which is propagated by a technique called bud grafting. Back in the olden days they used to fell a tree to harvest the latex, but now the do it by cutting away a slice on the surface just outside from where the sap flows – a process called tapping.

Tapping the Rubber Tree

Lately the industry has been running in to trouble of a fungal nature, an organism called Microcyclus ulei, which causes South American leaf blight and is threatening to become a fungicide resistant epidemic. Some companies are developing genetically engineered plants which are resistant to the fungus, others are picking dandelions.

Dandelions

I remember picking dandelions as a young lass, blowing the seeds away and making wishes, trying to make bracelets and tiaras out of them like they were daisies, wrapping the stem around the flower head and singing “mama had a baby but it’s head popped off.” That was before I hit the high seas, and we don’t see much flowers nowadays, though there be plenty of wood around (I mean the boat, perverts!)

Getting back to dandelions, you know that white, sticky stuff that oozed out of the stems when you plucked them? THAT’S LATEX!

Although it was used by some of the major players in the Second World War, latex from dandelions polymerises very quickly, making it hard to get all the latexy juice out of the stem. But this isn’t stopping scientists from the Fraunhofer Institute, who have taken the direct approach, found the enzyme responsible for the rapid polymerisation and turned it off. The genetically altered plants yield 400% more latex (sounds bigger than four times more, doesn’t it?) than the genetic run-of-the-mill members, making them potentially a major source of latex in the future. Fields and fields of dandelions ready to be plucked, squeezed dry, and turned into rubber for car tires.

Come to think about it, maybe that isn’t all that cool. Are fields of dandelions better than hectares of rubber trees? Both sound like cash crops to me. And sure, dandelions may be a source of low allergy latex, but what about the hayfever for the people who have to harvest them? And yes, dandelions aren’t susceptible to the same fungus that’s decimating the rubber trees, but I’m sure there’s a fungus or an insect out there quite capable of destroying masses of flowers.

Still… I guess we’ve got to get our latex gloves from somewhere…

Captain Skellett

I be Captain Skellett. Me blog started in April 2009 when I was working full time and didn’t get a chance to talk science. Now I have changed jobs and talk science all the time, but that doesn’t stop me blogging. More About Captain Skellett   Google

   

6 Responses to “Dandelions a Natural Source of Latex”

  1. gem says:

    some pros for dandelions!
    would we not be able to grow dandelions much faster than we could grow rubber trees?
    also – im assuming, but i could be wrong, that dandelions are not the natural habitat for creatures and birds and things?
    plus wouldnt it just be so pretty and calming for the scientists, to look out over the fields of dandelions?
    mmm, soothing.

    Captain Skellett Reply:

    Aye, but I bet a teeny little dandelion doesn’t yeild as much latex as a big ol’ rubber tree. I’m not sure which would result in more latex over, say, a ten year period, but it would be interesting to compare them, once they have set up the dandelion fields.
    I guess dandelions be the natural habitats for insects and stuff, but they would still destroy a lot of native wilderness to make room for the fields. Methinks it would be mighty calm and nice to look over fields of dandelions, but I doubt scientists will ultimately tend the fields. Cheap labour probably be the way they do it – and think of the bees!
    Arr… I’m not convinced.

  2. Lab Rat says:

    That was latex? i used to get that stuff all over my hands as a kid…there were dandelions growing all over the big of scrubby ground near our house…we used to pick loads of them. We once tried making dandelion wine (with no idea of how to do it). Put a load of them in a big tub of water, hit them around with a wooden spoon and then added some sugar. Fun times.

    Captain Skellett Reply:

    Sounds like fun, wonder what real dandelion wine tastes like… If anyone’s interested, here’s a link to make some, and here’s another which also describes a dandelion salad. Send me a bottle if you make some wine. Arr, cheap grog!

  3. SNolan says:

    Interesting read.Im currently investigating this(I know nearly a year late),but it could be possible to aeroponically/hydroponically grow the dandilions indoors saving arable land as well as lowering transport costs as companies that produce the rubber could do it vertical farms,greenhouses situated within their grounds to cut down transport costs to a degree

  4. dan says:

    dandelions are good for so many things, as are so many other “weeds” that grow naturally, until we make them go extinct or manipulate or refine them for some bizarre purpose.
    “Both sound like cash crops to me”
    i dont even know what to say… comodify nature with $$ as the goal?
    “The genetically altered plants yield 400% more latex (sounds bigger than four times more, doesn’t it?) than the genetic run-of-the-mill members, making them potentially a major source of latex in the future. Fields and fields of dandelions ready to be plucked, squeezed dry, and turned into rubber for car tires. ”
    yay, more tires, more cars, more pollution, more dollars, more oil. when will it end? when will we be satisfied with what we’ve got? science has gotten out of hand. genetically modified?!?!?
    we are creating our own demise. the scientific/economic/technological mind must come down off it’s cloud and realize that nature was doing a perfectly good job before we came about.Technology has gone too far. Learn how to connect with nature in a personal manner. take the time to learn something about the natural world in its natural state by observing it and being with/in it before it’s too late, rather than dissecting it. work with it in a humble way, realizing that we depend on each other.
    read Wade Davis’ ‘One River’ or something. he talks about dandelion latex in the book, among other things. bla bla bla bla bla bla….. silly hairless monkeys/starseeds/sheeple/whatever fits your belief system.

    i think the fumes in the laboratory are getting to some people. just because it can be done, doesn’t mean it should.

    end of rant






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