THE USE OF CHEAP LATEX surgical gloves containing large amounts of protein from rubber plants has caused an explosion of allergies among nurses, doctors, and other gloved professionals. Once people become allergic, even high-quality gloves that are nearly free of the proteins can trigger a reaction. In extreme cases, that reaction can lead to anaphylactic shock and even death.
The solution to the problem may come from a desert shrub called guayule, which produces latex in its bark without allergenic proteins. U.S. Agriculture Dept. scientists have bred new strains of guayule, which can be ground up to produce large amounts of the material. Now, Katrina Cornish, an Agriculture Dept. plant physiologist in Albany, Calif., and her colleague, Deborah J. Siler, believe they can genetically increase the amount of an initiator enzyme in guayule to further boost latex yields. The government is looking for a company to plant the strains and market them. Since the guayule plant can only be harvested every four years, Cornish is hunting for substitutes. She hopes to genetically alter annuals such as goldenrod and milkweed so they, too, produce latex in commercially worthwhile quantities.