For a hundred years, optimists have rallied around guayule—a scrubby desert plant native to the Southwest—as the best hope for a domestic natural rubber industry. So far every hope for commercializing guayule has been dashed. But circumstances unforeseen even two decades ago may finally give the latex-producing shrub the push it needs.
A few years ago, researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture devised a way to produce a hypoallergenic latex from guayule as a substitute for Hevea latex in gloves and medical products. Earlier this year, the same researchers used a common gene transfer technique to ease the genetic engineering of guayule for higher latex yields.
The USDA has licensed its technology to Yulex Corp., a company formed specifically to commercialize guayule. With the hiring of Jeffrey Martin, an experienced sales and marketing exec from Safeskin Corp., as Yulex CEO, everything appears in place for a major commercialization effort.
Of course, this has happened before. In the early 1900s guayule comprised 10 percent of the U.S. natural rubber market. The story of why there's no guayule rubber for sale now is epic, containing elements ranging from Pancho Villa raids, to ``stolen seed'' intrigue, to heavily funded but failed government and industry efforts. The story goes on and on.
Today guayule's backers are betting the latex allergy issue will create a market for guayule. True, good-quality synthetic gloves are already in wide distribution, and current guayule plantings total a few hundred acres at most, so it's another long shot. But at least it's a shot.