Colorado State leads researchers on quest to produce rubber from sunflowers and guayule

Colorado State University is leading a team of researchers who plan to develop sunflowers into a rubber-producing crop, alleviating the harvest of rubber trees in Southeast Asia and Brazil – currently the only natural source of rubber in the world.

The United States is currently totally dependent upon imports for its rubber supply, importing nearly 1.3 million tons a year at a cost of $2 billion. Almost all natural rubber comes from rubber trees including those grown on plantations in Malaysia and in Brazilian rain forests. Currently the production of rubber trees on Malaysian plantations is diminishing because farmers there consider it to be a crop with low value.

Research at Colorado State will be based at the Western Colorado Research Center, a part of the Agricultural Experiment Station at Colorado State. It will explore ways to increase rubber production in sunflowers. Other project collaborators will look at optimizing rubber production in guayule, a plant native to southwestern states.

“Sunflowers naturally produce a small amount of rubber,” said Calvin Pearson, Colorado State professor and research agronomist and research project coordinator. “By developing new sunflower varieties, the quality and quantity of rubber in sunflowers can be increased. Guayule naturally produces high quality rubber, but more research is needed to make it a more profitable crop. By developing these crops, we’re able to support our national economy and become less dependent upon imports.”

Natural rubber is an irreplaceable raw material and is a component of more than 400,000 products including 400 medical devices. The United States, which uses about 20 percent of the global rubber supply, is the single largest consumer of natural rubber. About half of the global rubber supply is natural, and the other half is synthetic. The federal government last year made finding alternative, domestic sources of rubber production a national priority.

“Although rubber supplies are currently sufficient to meet market demand, the supply will likely diminish since plantation owners don’t see the crop as profitable,” said Lee Sommers, Colorado State Agricultural Experiment Station director. “This could lead to stress on the American economy since so many products we use in our day-to-day life depend upon rubber.”

The four-year research project will investigate enhancing rubber production in crops suitable for the United States through developing environmentally-friendly, productive varieties of sunflower and guayule plants. The group received a $2.5 million U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to foster rubber production. Colorado State built a new laboratory and growth chamber at the Western Colorado Research Center in Fruita.

In addition to Pearson, the core team of researchers collaborating on the project are Katrina Cornish, plant physiologist and rubber biochemist, USDA-Agricultural Research Service, Albany, Calif; Jay Keasling, professor and metabolic engineer, University of California, Berkeley; Dennis T. Ray, professor and plant breeder, University of Arizona; and John Vederas, chemistry professor, University of Alberta, Canada.

Others who will participate are Andrew McAloon, cost engineer, USDA-Agricultural Research Service, Wyndmoore, Penn.; and Harold Larson, associate professor and plant pathologist; Robert Hammon, research associate and entomologist; and Rod L. Sharp, Cooperative Extension agriculture and business management economist specialist, all with Colorado State.

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