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From plant genes to ice cream

The guar plant produces a gum that helps give ice cream its creaminess and shampoo its gooeyness. Image courtesy of Kanwarpal S. Dhugga.
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

If you've ever looked at the ingredients list on a carton of ice cream, you've probably spotted some weird items among the sugar, cream and eggs. Ever wonder what "guar gum" is and what it's doing in your ice cream?

Plants like the guar plant produce a substance called a "gum" that helps support their cell walls. When they're extracted from the plants, gums help give ice cream its creaminess and shampoo its gooeyness. Plant gums are even used to help manage the flow of concrete.

Scientists have been wanting to identify the plant genes necessary for making gums for two reasons. First, they want to understand how plants grow and build their cell walls. They would also like to learn about the plant's gum-making machinery, so they can insert the genetic instructions for making gums into other plants as well.

Kanwarpal S. Dhugga, a scientist at a company called Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc., and his colleagues have now identified an important gum gene in the guar plant. The gene is for an enzyme that propels the chemical reactions that produce the gum.

In their study, appearing in the 16 January issue of Science, Dhugga and his colleagues explain that most guar gums are typically imported from South Asia or the Mediterranean and that their prices vary a lot from season to season. If researchers can put the gum-making genes into more reliable, abundant, local crops, like soybean, they may have a cheaper source of useful plant gums.


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