In search of more latex

Rubber tree plantation in Sri Lanka: from the Brazilian Amazon to Asia

Andreas Krappweis / Wikimedia Commons Rubber tree plantation in Sri Lanka: from the Brazilian Amazon to AsiaAndreas Krappweis / Wikimedia Commons

Asian scientists are working on the genome of the seringuera, or rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis), which grows to a height of about 30 meters and produces latex used as a raw material in the production of natural rubber. A team from the Riken Center for Sustainable Resource Science in Japan and the University of Science in Malaysia has sequenced 93% of the genes expressed in the rubber tree genome, which has 2.15 billion base pairs, and has identified DNA regions involved in the synthesis of latex (Scientific Reports, June 24, 2016). According to the paper, latex production appears to arise from the coordinated expression of duplicate genes, which occupy 72% of the genome, and other genes associated with resistance to disease. In another recent study, Zhi Zhou of the Rubber Research Institute, an agency of the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture, described the genetic mechanisms that regulate the cell’s permeability to water, a factor essential for latex (Gene and Translational Bioinformatics, February 2016). The rubber tree, native to the Brazilian Amazon, is now widely planted in Southeast Asia, principally Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, as a result of one of the first cases of biopiracy in history.  In 1876, English botanist Henry Wickhan smuggled more than 70,000 seeds from the area around Santarém, in the state of Pará, and planted them in Asia, where the harvest exceeded Brazilian production within just a few years.