Fears of a serious natural-rubber shortage should have surgical glove, condom, and especially tire manufacturers shaking in their rubber boots. But Washington State University researchers have pinpointed a creative way to potentially create more natural rubber while also making use of what's usually just a pesky weed. The study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry outlines the possibility of using the sap of prickly lettuce—an often bitter-tasting, wild relative of the more palatable cultivated lettuce—to manufacture rubber, Phys.org reports. "I think there's interest in developing a temperate-climate source of natural rubber," says lead author and "weed scientist" Ian Burke. "It would be really great if prickly lettuce could become one of those crops."
The reason it would be so great: When prickly lettuce "bolts," or forms flowers and seeds, a "milky white sap" leaks out of the stem, notes Phys.org. Burke recalled a piece of research from 2006 suggesting the substance emitted by prickly lettuce is similar to natural rubber's polymers: "It occurred to me that we could grow the heck out of prickly lettuce in eastern Washington," he tells the website. Burke and his colleagues took samples of the prickly lettuce and discovered that it's ideal for bolting, producing numerous stems, and, hopefully, churning out the source material for rubber. Bonus: Prickly lettuce doesn't need much water, so it could be rotated with other crops. (Too bad we can't just use these rubber blocks that keep washing up on Europe's beaches.)