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.
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.
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…