By Clive Wakely. Tyres made from processed genetically modified (GM) dandelions may eventually prove be a commercial success – but what are the longer-term consequences for both mankind and the environment?
Two years ago, the Land & People site reported on German research into producing rubber from GM dandelions; earlier this year it was revealed that a leading German tyre manufacturer is investing heavily to turn a laboratory experimental concept into manufacturing reality.
German tyre manufacturer, Continental, has announced that it has “latched onto” the results of a university study that suggests that rubber can be produced in commercial quantities from GM dandelions.
According to a company spokesman rubber from dandelions could meet 10 per cent of Germany’s annual rubber needs, reducing the country’s dependence on Brazilian suppliers accordingly.
In 2009 scientists in Germany claimed to have developed a GM dandelion that had the ability to produce far more latex than available from any natural dandelion variety.
Latex, as found in nature, is the milky sap of many plants that coagulates on exposure to air.
Now, as is easily demonstrated, if the flower head from a natural dandelion is removed then white sap oozes freely from the exposed stem for a few seconds.
However if the flower head is removed from the GM variety under evaluation, then the sap oozes for minutes, producing five times more latex than from a natural dandelion.
One of the research scientists claimed: “We have identified the enzyme responsible for the rapid polymerisation and have switched it off. If the plants were to be cultivated on a large scale, every hectare would produce 500 to 1000 kilograms of latex per growing season.”
Currently, most of the world’s rubber is collected from tropical rubber trees.
Typically the extraction method is to make a diagonal cut in the tree trunk, which allows the white latex sap to drip into hanging cans.
The raw latex is collected and processed to create rubber.
Similarly latex derived from dandelions, it is claimed, can also be processed into rubber.
According to the German scientists their GM rubber has an advantage over the naturally derived product.
Natural rubber contains small quantities of biological impurities.
In some cases, such as the manufacture of vulcanised rubber, these are an advantage; however in other cases, such as in the production of rubber gloves, these impurities can give rise to allergic reactions.
Dandelion-derived latex is claimed to have the elasticity of natural rubber and to be allergen free.
Currently, to obtain latex from dandelions, a chemical process requiring the use of turpentine and naphtha is used.
The GM development makes this process redundant and involves implanting a specially engineered virus in the plant.
This virus attacks the plant’s DNA “deleting the offending genetic sequence” which causes the latex sap to stop flowing after a second or two.
This means far greater quantities of latex-sap can be collected using a simple centrifuge, rather than with chemicals.
At first glance this development, if proven to be commercially viable, would appear to be very useful – particularly in light of the ever-increasing commodity prices and the widespread use of latex based products.
Unfortunately, like so many other GM “innovations”, there are questions that need to be answered.
How do you, for instance, protect non-GM dandelions, other species and the environment from GM dandelion contamination?
Can it be guaranteed that GM dandelions, either directly or indirectly, will not give rise to any unintended and unwelcome consequences?
And as cattle and other grazing animals will consume the plants irrespective of whether they are GM or not – what, exactly, are the consequences of such material entering the animal/human food chain?
Furthermore, why shouldn’t “for-profit” Corporations intent on introducing unnatural bio-technology into the environment be required to provide cast-iron assurances on matters of such importance and public concern – assurances based on proven fact rather than on “the balance of probability” as is almost always the case?
No doubt all concerned with the development of GM products (rubber or whatever) do so with the best of intentions.
However, that said, it is equally true that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions – arising, in many a case, from unintended consequences.