ST. LOUIS—Sunflower fields aren't just for photo opportunities.
David Woodburn, CEO of Edison Agrosciences Inc., has high hopes for developing technology aimed at increasing the natural rubber content in sunflower plants. His company now is armed with a new bushel of funding to help.
Sunflowers contain small amounts of natural rubber in their leaves, and Woodburn and his company are working to increase the yield through genetic modification. It's a project that could help the U.S. become more independent for its natural rubber supply, which currently is chiefly harvested in just one part of the world.
When it comes to natural rubber, hevea brasiliensis—the rubber tree—is the world's titan, and production overwhelmingly is concentrated in Southeast Asia.
But Woodburn and Edison have a different idea.
"The plants themselves, without any improvement or modification, produce about 0.2 percent to 1.6 percent of their leaf weight in natural rubber," he said about sunflowers.
While that doesn't sound like a lot, doubling, tripling or even quadrupling the output through genetic modification could lead to a viable business opportunity on U.S. soil, Woodburn said. "That's what we're doing. We're just trying to increase the amount of natural rubber already being produced in these plants."
There already are other efforts under way in the U.S. to return commercial natural rubber production to domestic soil decades after the country did just that during World War II.