Natural rubber is a unique and valuable raw material that is essential to industry, medicine, personal care, and transportation. In many of these applications it cannot be replaced by synthetic-petroleum-based materials. Currently, its major source is the rubber tree Hevea brasiliensis. Increased worldwide demand for natural rubber and latex, a fungal disease potentially capable of destroying Hevea brasiliensis plantations in South-East Asia, and allergies to Hevea brasiliensis latex, are important drivers to develop alternative – domestic sources of latex and natural rubber, the two most promising of which are the North-American shrub Parthenium argentatum (guayule) and Taraxacum koksaghyz (Russian dandelion). The EU-PEARLS Consortium links stakeholders in the EU and elsewhere in the development, exploitation and sustainable use of these plants, aiming to establish complete new value creation chains.
The EU-PEARLS project includes the collection and creation of new germplasm, and research into the biochemistry and genetics of rubber biosynthesis, breeding and agronomy of guayule and Russian dandelion, processing of the crops, and product development. Analysis of the rubber biosynthetic pathway in these crops, aided by mapping of genes involved in rubber biosynthesis, will help to identify potential bottlenecks, and accelerate conventional breeding for commercially-viable rubber yields. Helper organisms will include Arabidopsis thaliana and Baker’s yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Improved plants will be tested for efficient growth and rubber production in the field under different climatic and edaphic conditions in Europe. In parallel, methods to process the plants, and harvest the latex and rubber will be evaluated and optimised. Furthermore, the technical performance and economic potential of rubber extracted from these plants will be evaluated by producing specific prototypes, such as surgical gloves and tires.
The EU-PEARLS consortium is a collaborative network of European research organisations and industrial participants, with the necessary scientific and administrative expertise and cross-disciplinary experience to meet the project objectives, which include establishment of the two new crop plants and the required processing industry. Furthermore, the potential economic, environmental and societal effects in terms of jobs, water and land requirements, and pollution will be investigated.
EU-PEARLS is funded under the Seventh Framework Programme for research and technological development. The total budget is 7.7 million Euros, 5.6 million of which will be covered by EU-funding. The partners are located in 8 countries (see table below). The Czech Republik, France, Germany, Spain, The Netherlands are EU-partners, Switzerland is an Associated Country, Kazakhstan is an International Co-operation Partner Country (ICPC), and the USA a Third Partner bringing its own funding. The official starting date of the project is April 1, 2008. The project is set to run for a period of 4 years.