DENVER (AP) -- Imagine a field of bright yellow sunflowers basking in warm summer sun, leaves thick and deep green, and brimming with enough natural rubber to fashion a set of high-performance tires.
In a decade, it may be reality if an experiment by Colorado State University and government researchers proves successful.
The researchers are trying to increase the amount of natural rubber produced in a sunflower from 1 percent to 10 percent by cross-breeding it with the guayule, a rubber-producing plant, or by stimulating the sunflower's rubber gene.
The guayule (gwah-YOO-lee) plant, which grows wild mostly in the deserts of southwestern Texas and northern Mexico, is more difficult to grow commercially than sunflowers. But it is genetically similar to the sunflower, a crop that thrives in the Great Plains.
The Colorado State's project manager, Lee Sommers, said he hopes to have a prototype in about five years, with a plant ready for commercial production in eight years at the earliest.
Researchers believe the economic benefits would be huge because all the natural rubber used in the United States is imported mostly from Brazil and Malaysia. That's about 1.3 million tons a year, costing roughly $2 billion.
''If it works, it would seriously reduce how much rubber we import from other countries,'' Sommers said. ''It could make us independent.''
Natural rubber has a higher quality than synthetic, primarily because some of its properties, like elasticity and malleability, cannot be reproduced.
Airplane tires, surgical balloons, surgical tubing, gloves and condoms are made with natural rubber; shoe soles, tire tread and golf ball cores are synthetic, made from petroleum.
The initial genetic research is being completed at the USDA's Agricultural Research Service in Albany, Calif. Department of Agriculture researcher Katrina Cornish said she will work with the rubber-producing trait to try to create several prototypes using different mixes of guayule and sunflower genes.
''We want to make sure we get high-quality rubber,'' she said. ''If we find out sunflowers produce bad rubber, we'll add more guayule genes to create better rubber.''
Test plants will be sent to university labs in Fruita, about 250 miles west of Denver. With a $2.5 million USDA grant, researchers will try to harvest rubber by grinding the leaves and stem with a mixture of water and then extracting the rubber from the pulp.
Charles Williams, an Idaho State University biologist, said the oil-producing trait in corn has been increased in a similar way for more than 30 years.
''It's becoming more possible to genetically alter plants to get what you are looking for,'' he said. ''With the right combination of traits, the researchers could produce exactly what they want.''
Plants have to be closely related to successfully create a species or increase certain traits. The more wild variations of the plant, the better the chances of a successful new crop, Williams said.
Sunflowers are grown primarily for seeds. Some seeds are crushed for oil; others are sold to the food industry as snack fare or packaged as birdseed.
Most of the 2.75 million acres planted in the United States in 2001 were farmed in North Dakota. South Dakota, Kansas and Colorado also are top producers.
Dean Sonnenberg, who farms in northeastern Colorado, said he would be interested in raising the plant if there is demand for it.
''I'm always interested in something that will boost demand to hold up the value of the crop,'' he said. ''Creating more uses for your product makes the market more stable.''
On The Net:
National Sunflower Association: http://www.sunflowernsa.com
Colorado State University: http://www.colostate.edu
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