Agricultural Biotech Invention Could Revolutionize U.S. Rubber Production

Agricultural Biotech Invention Could Revolutionize U.S. Rubber Production

Will sunflowers be NC’s next cash crop? Agricultural biotech company Edison Agrosciences wants to use these plants to produce natural rubber. If they succeed, we could have a natural, sustainable source of this vital material.

What is agricultural biotech?

Biotechnology is the process of modifying living organisms, like plants and bacteria, to improve any number of their uses. Agricultural biotechnology is a branch of biotechnology that focuses specifically on food and farming.

What do these terms look like in practice? For one, farmers can selectively breed crops so that they produce more nutrients and live more easily with less water. Scientists can also directly edit the DNA of plants. Recently, scientists have used the CRISPR/Cas-9 technology to edit the DNA of tomatoes to make them resistant to a common virus.

Not only can agricultural biotech help us produce more food, but it can also help turn crops into crucial widgets for producing other useful materials.

Agricultural Biotech Could Use Sunflowers to Produce Rubber

Image courtesy of Edison Agrosciences.

That’s where Edison Agrosciences comes in. Edison Agrosciences was founded in North Carolina in 2013 and today has a research base in RTP. They are developing a new type of sunflower that could help the U.S. produce more rubber domestically.

Why sunflowers? A couple reasons. One: sunflowers are native to North America, and so there are a lot of places in the US where they could grow easily. Two: sunflowers already produce rubber in their leaves. But right now, the amount of rubber that sunflowers make is too small to make harvesting that rubber worthwhile. However, if Edison Agrosciences could engineer sunflowers that produce four or five times more rubber than they currently, that equation would change.

Natural Rubber Production Could Mean Less Dependence On Fossil Fuels

Tires, like many other rubber products are made from both natural and synthetic rubber.
Image courtesy of Goh Rhy Yan on Unsplash.

We use rubber for many things, from car tires to latex gloves. Historically, the U.S. got most of its natural rubber from southeast Asia. When that supply was disrupted by World War II, there was a massive effort to develop synthetic rubber for use in the war. Today, much of our rubber products are made with that synthetic rubber rather than natural rubber.

This trend presents a few problems. Synthetic rubber is made from petroleum products, which requires crude oil. Because rubber products are vital to so many U.S. industries (whether transportation or medicine), a rubber supply based mostly on limited fossil fuels is less than ideal.

Additionally, synthetic rubber poses health concerns. Dust and fumes from the rubber making process can be harmful for workers and the environment. In recent years, there’s also been concerns about the effects of microplastics in our air and water. Microplastics occur when little particles wear off from rubber tires or the soles of your shoes. Those bits can be washed into drains and end up in our water supply.

But if we can create more natural rubber, we could reduce some of these harmful effects of synthetic rubber. Plus, who wouldn’t love to see fields of sunflowers instead of oil refineries?

For another example of innovative agricultural biotech, check out Medicago’s vaccine-producing plants.