Rubber (cis-1,4-polyisoprene) is one of the most important polymers naturally produced by plants because it is a strategic raw material used in more than 40,000 products, including more than 400 medical devices. The sole commercial source, at present, is natural rubber harvested from the Brazilian rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis. Primarily due to its molecular structure and high molecular weight (>1 million daltons) this rubber has high performance properties that cannot easily be mimicked by artificially produced polymers, such as those derived from, e.g., bacterial poly-hydroxy-alkanoates (PHAs). These high performance properties include resilience, elasticity, abrasion resistance, efficient heat dispersion (minimizing heat build-up under friction), and impact resistance. Medical rubber gloves need to fit well, be break-resistant, allow the wearer to retain fine tactile sensation, and provide an effective barrier against pathogens. The sum of all these characteristics cannot yet be achieved using synthetic gloves. The lack of biodiversity in natural rubber production renders continuity of supply insecure, because of the risk of crop failure, diminishing acreage, and other disadvantages outlined below. A search for alternative sources of natural rubber production has already resulted in a large number of interesting plants and prospects for immediate industrial exploitation of guayule (Parthenium argentatum) as a source of high quality latex. Metabolic engineering will permit the production of new crops designed to accumulate new types of valued isoprenoid metabolites, such as rubber and carotenoids, and new combinations extractable from the same crop. Currently, experiments are underway to genetically improve guayule rubber production strains in both quantitative and qualitative respects. Since the choice for gene activities to be introduced or changed is under debate, we have set up a complementary approach to guayule with yeast species, which may more quickly show the applicability and relevance of genes selected. Although economic considerations may prevent commercial exploitation of new rubber-producing microorganisms, transgenic yeasts and bacteria may yield intermediate or alternative (poly-)isoprenes suitable for specific applications.
|Journal||Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology|
|Publication status||Published - 2000|