The global economy depends on rubber. But the world car industry and its affiliate, the world tire industry, are in terror that a vicious fungus running amok in rubber tree plantations in Brazil could reach Asia and wreak havoc.
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Enter a common weed: the dandelion.
Kids know that when you pick dandelions (to blow on their dainty seeds), they "bleed" a thick white sap. Now scientists are competing to breed a type of dandelion native to Kazakhstan whose taproot yields that milky fluid - with tyre-grade rubber particles in it.
At the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany, molecular scientists are working to engineer a new strain of dandelion with a higher rubber yield, that could secure the future of road transport if the tree goes the way of all flesh.
And thus from weed, the dandelion – at least the Kazakh variety – could become a cash crop. A small trial by an American research team found they delivered rubber yields on a par with the best trees in Asia.
Dirk Pruefer head of the project at the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology in Greenhouses, is heading the German dandelion breeding project. Scientists have known for years about the rubbery quality of the dandelion sap, but are still working on stabilizing the trait of the rubber content, he explains.
The tyre industry consumes about two-thirds of the world's natural rubber. Global tyre makers like industry leader Bridgestone and the fourth-biggest, Continental, are investing millions of dollars in this research.
So far, synthetic rubber made from petrochemicals hasn't worked out as a substitute: it just doesn't have that natural flexibility at low temperatures and tends to crack.
The dandelion rubber is looking mighty good, say the scientists. "We have some good results. Our strategic partner Continental, they made a lot of testing tissues so see the quality of the material. And what you can see is that the quality is similar to that what they have originally done with the rubber from the rubber tree."
The global banana crop also has a fungus problem, one so acute that some foresee the extinction of man's favorite subspecies, the sweet Cavendish. Fungal diseases are the devil to cure, because unlike bacteria, fungi are eukaryotic cells that can be hard to eradicate without eradicating the hapless host too. The case of bananas is even worse because they proliferate asexually: with lesser (or no) genetic variation, there are less (or no) variants that might be more resistant to the disease.
At least rubber trees can propagate sexually, though it is extremely common practice to simply grow new ones using cuttings from old ones, which is – exactly - cloning.