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Sunflowers May Be "Rubber Factories"

By Marcia Wood
June 17, 2002

Lanky sunflowers may become latex and rubber factories of the future. This might happen if tests by Agricultural Research Service scientists and their university colleagues continue to provide encouraging results. The researchers joined forces to improve the quality and quantity of latex from sunflower plants.

Inside plants, latex consists of rubber particles surrounded by water and other compounds. Latex can be made into such products as household or surgical gloves or rubber goods like automobile tires.

This innovative use of sunflowers would reduce America's dependence on imported latex, natural rubber and manufactured rubber products, according to ARS plant physiologist Katrina Cornish at Albany, Calif. She is with the ARS Western Regional Research Center. Too, the futuristic sunflowers could lessen the need for synthetic rubber made from petroleum. In 2000, the United States imported about 1.2 million tons of natural rubber, worth more than $1 billion, and more than $8 billion of manufactured goods containing about 350 thousand tons of rubber.

Although the quantity and quality of latex from sunflowers is not yet good enough for commercial use, Cornish and co-investigators expect to improve it further through genetic engineering. The scientists are experimenting with several different types or lines of sunflowers.

Cornish will insert laboratory-built genes for latex production into sunflower tissue. Next, she will test the tissue to determine whether the new genes are working inside the sunflower cells. Later, greenhouse and field tests will identify the gene-engineered plants that produce the highest amounts of the best-quality latex. In experiments after harvest, Cornish and co-researchers will determine how to preserve sunflower latex while it's in storage, awaiting processing.

Cornish, a world authority on how plants produce rubber, is doing the sunflower project with colleagues from Colorado State University and Oregon State University. Details are in the June 2002 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific research agency.

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