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U of C researcher turns lettuce into synthetic rubber

By Diltaj Atwal, February 12 2015 —

Researchers at the University of Calgary have identified an enzyme in lettuce that allows them to synthesize natural rubber from the leafy green.

Associate professor Dae-Kyun Ro and PhD student Yang Qu’s research found a component naturally occurring in lettuce called cis-Prenyltransferase, the key to the biosynthesis of natural rubber.

Ro’s lettuce produced high-quality natural rubber in low quantities. He said the rubber can be used in airplanes, cars, trucks and medical equipment like latex gloves.

There is only one species of Brazilian rubber tree that naturally produces high quality rubber. If these trees are lost, it would devastate the rubber industry.

Ro focused on the basics of biochemistry to understand the mechanism of natural rubber biosynthesis in plants.

“We found lettuce as a model system and we identified the one hidden key component which is necessary for natural rubber biosynthesis,” Ro said. “When we knock out that gene, the rubber amount reduced dramatically and significantly.”

Ro said that the rubber he synthesized from lettuce shares all the same properties as synthesized rubber like elasticity, resilience and heat dispersion.

“If you look at the three-dimensional structure of rubber, it’s basically like a spring. A bio spring with a very long molecular weight,” Ro said.

Alberta Innovates Technology Future funded the research with $300,000 awarded by the Alberta Ingenuity New Faculty award.

Ro hopes to use the natural biosynthetic machinery to make natural rubber. He said all rubber made from petrochemicals can one day be replaced by those produced in a test tube.

“Our hope is that we found one component to elucidate the mechanisms and mysteries. If we know enough, then we can devise a method to produce high quality rubber,” Ro said. “We are performing fundamental science to potentially create innovative methods to produce industrial material like natural rubber.”


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