Averting Rubber Disaster

Skype video dialogue with Dr. Thomas Sharkey

By EV World Video

Charles Mann's best selling sequel, '1493' recounts the ecological and human consequences of the Columbian Exchange, the effect on the whole world of the interchange of ideas, animals, plants, people, and diseases wrought in the wake of Cristobal Colon's voyages to the 'New World.'

One of the most important, from the modern, industrial world's perspective is rubber, specifically Hevea brasiliensis, the principle source of latex. Originally scattered across the Amazon basin and Central America, bio-pirates in the 19th century smuggled it out of Brazil and Peru -- illegally, the nations contends -- and from there it spread across the tropical world to plantations across southeast Asia. The problem is, all those trees are essentially clones of handful of seeds sprouted in London's Royal Kews Gardens in the 1870s.

A fungus native to the tropical rain forests of Brazil, Microcyclus lei, uses its spores to spread from tree to tree. It can kill a tree in 2 to 3 seasons and worse, there is no way to reverse it. It already has largely wiped out the rubber industry in Brazil. Tire makers are worried that in a globalized world, the fungus will eventually find its ways to southeast Asia. If it does, it could spread across the region and destroy the world's source of latex.

As you might imagine, governments and industry aren't waiting for disaster to strike. They are actively looking for solutions, and one of the pioneers in that search is Dr. Thomas Sharkey with Michigan State University, In this two part Skype video interview he talks about his work on bio-isopremes, the molecular building block for making latex. All plants produce it and Dr. Sharkey has genetically altered bacteria to create isoprene from plant sugars, principally, for now, from corn. When scaled up to industrial levels using non-food plant stocks, it could someday provide a chemically purer substitute for latex and serve as a vital hedge against the eventuality of a rubber disaster.

This interview is in two parts.

cutting rubber tree bark to collect latex sap.

Worker on rubber tree plantation cutting bark to collect latex sap. Virtually all of the trees planted across Asia are from clones bio-pirated out of the Amazon basin in the 1870s.

Times Article Viewed: 8305
Published: 16-May-2012


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