Malaysia has laid claim to being a world leader and pioneer in the rubber industry for more than a century. In spite of revisionist attempts, the incontrovertible fact is that H.N. Ridley and the British colonialists brought some economic advantage to us.
That said, in recent decades Malaysia appears to have decided to let go of one of our great products in becoming obsessed with industrialisation at the expense of channeling our resources to sustain research on rubber. We have permitted Thailand and Indonesia to grow rubber with hardly any active involvement. So, we let our upstream leadership go. Fair enough. But, why let our downstream world leadership of rubber research go? We have lost the lead to the petro-based industries that has been doggedly trying to completely replace natural rubber with petro-based synthetic rubber. Our only saving grace is that there are many, many things that synthetic rubber can't do, especially in high temperatures, since its compounds start disintegrating.
Here is a reminder that natural rubber is a valuable resource that Malaysia can still innovate and claim leadership to. All the talk about innovation rings hollow if insufficient focus is placed on rubber research. Rubber research was one of Malaysia's great innovative efforts.
The article that I am reproducing below is a reminder that this industry is still invaluable. Otherwise, the type of research reported below would not be taking place. 2010 should be more than a Year of Innovation for Malaysia, it should be a Year of Rubber Innovation:
OTHER than being an ingredient of the more recherché sorts of salad, herbal tea or wine, dandelions are pretty useless plants. Or, at least, they were. But one species, a Russian variety called Taraxacum kok-saghyz (TKS), may yet make the big time. It produces molecules of rubber in its sap and if two research programmes, one going on in Germany and one in America, come to fruition, it could supplement—or even replace—the traditional rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis.
Despite the invention of synthetic rubbers, there is often no good substitute for the real thing, for nothing artificial yet matches natural rubber’s resilience and strength. This is because natural-rubber molecules, the product of a stepwise synthesis by enzymes, have a more regular structure than the artificial ones made by chemical engineering. Around a fifth of an average car tyre is therefore made of natural rubber. In an aeroplane tyre that figure can be more than four-fifths. Moreover, the price of synthetic rubber is tied to that of the oil from which it is made, rendering it vulnerable to changes in the oil price. Because oil is likely to become more costly in the future, natural rubber looks an attractive alternative from an economic point of view as well as an engineering one.
Natural rubber has problems, though. Growing Hevea in the Americas is hard. A disease called leaf blight means the trees have to be spaced widely. Even in Asia, currently blight-free, planting new rubber trees often means cutting down rainforest, to general disapproval. And trees, being large, take time to grow to the point where they can yield a crop. A smaller plant that could be harvested for its rubber therefore has obvious appeal. One proposal is to use guayule, a shrub that grows in arid regions and produces rubber that is free from allergenic proteins, which makes it useful for items such as surgical gloves. Desert plants, however, tend to be slow growing—guayule takes two years to mature. Yulex, a firm that has commercialised guayule, gets an annual crop of 400 kilograms per hectare. Hevea can yield four or five times that figure. Which is where TKS could come in. Dandelions are regarded as weeds for a reason—they are robust, fast-growing plants that can be pulled up for processing and resown easily, possibly yielding two harvests a year. If they could be turned into usable crops, they could outstrip even Hevea.
To this end, Christian Schulze Gronover of the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology in Aachen, Germany, and his colleagues have identified the genes that allow TKS to produce usable rubber. In particular, they have discovered an enzyme called polyphenoloxidase that is responsible for making its rubbery sap coagulate.
From the plant’s point of view this coagulation is a good thing. The evolutionary purpose of rubber, and the reason why it has appeared independently in plants as diverse as trees, guayule and dandelions, is that it gums up the mouthparts of herbivorous insects. Human users, however, do not want it to coagulate too soon, and Dr Schulze Gronover has found a way to switch polyphenoloxidase off, using a technique called RNA interference. This intercepts and destroys the molecular messengers that carry instructions from the polyphenoloxidase gene to make the enzyme, meaning that rubber can be extracted more easily from the plant.
Meanwhile, in America Matthew Kleinhenz of Ohio State University is working on increasing the yield of rubber from TKS. Dr Kleinhenz is doing things the old-fashioned way, growing different strains of TKS, grinding up the roots (where most of the sap is found) to see which have the highest rubber content, and crossbreeding the winners. His aim is to create a plant that is both high-yielding and has roots chunky enough to be harvested mechanically by the sort of device now used to pick carrots.
Combining the two approaches—high-tech bioengineering and low-tech plant breeding—may produce that rarity in the modern world, a whole new crop species. It would also mark a step on a journey that some see as the way forward: a return to the use of plant-based products that have, briefly, been overshadowed by the transient availability of cheap oil.