Dandelions in a greenhouse. Photo by Fraunhofer IME.
Natural rubber is used in a wide range of products—from car tires to latex gloves. The bulk of rubber supplies come from trees in Southeast Asia, which unfortunately are currently threatened by a fast-spreading fungus. Although fungicides are keeping the disease temporarily in check, an epidemic could wipe out the natural rubber industry.
Dr. Dirk Prüfer and his research team at the Fraunhofer Institute have turned to the Russian dandelion—a plant cultivated for latex during WWII—for another source of rubber. The challenge with dandelion rubber is that the white, milky substance present in the stalk typically polymerizes too quickly to be used. However, Dr. Prüfer’s lab has found a way to turn off an enzyme responsible for the polymerization, thus allowing four to five times the cultivation of typical plants. According to Dr. Prüfer, 500 to 1,000 kilograms of rubber could be produced per hectare if cultivated at a large scale.