This article may be too technical for most readers to understand.(April 2020)
Latex as found in nature is a milky fluid found in 10% of all flowering plants (angiosperms). It is a complex emulsion consisting of proteins, alkaloids, starches, sugars, oils, tannins, resins, and gums that coagulate on exposure to air. It is usually exuded after tissue injury. In most plants, latex is white, but some have yellow, orange, or scarlet latex. Since the 17th century, latex has been used as a term for the fluid substance in plants, deriving from the Latin word for "liquid." It serves mainly as defense against herbivorous insects. Latex is not to be confused with plant sap; it is a distinct substance, separately produced, and with separate functions.
Originally, the name given to latex by indigenous Equator tribes[clarification needed] who cultivated the rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis, was "caoutchouc", from the words caa ('tear') and ochu ('tree'), because of the way it is collected.
The cells (laticifers) in which latex is found make up the laticiferous system, which can form in two very different ways. In many plants, the laticiferous system is formed from rows of cells laid down in the meristem of the stem or root. The cell walls between these cells are dissolved so that continuous tubes, called latex vessels, are formed. Since these vessels are made of many cells, they are known as articulated laticifers. This method of formation is found in the poppy family and in the rubber trees (Para rubber tree, members of the family Euphorbiaceae, members of the mulberry and fig family, such as the Panama rubber tree Castilla elastica), and members of the family Asteraceae. For instance, Parthenium argentatum the guayule plant, is in the tribe Heliantheae; other latex-bearing Asteraceae with articulated laticifers include members of the Cichorieae, a clade whose members produce latex, some of them in commercially interesting amounts. This includes Taraxacum kok-saghyz, a species cultivated for latex production.
In the milkweed and spurge families, on the other hand, the laticiferous system is formed quite differently. Early in the development of the seedling, latex cells differentiate, and as the plant grows these latex cells grow into a branching system extending throughout the plant. In many euphorbs, the entire structure is made from a single cell - this type of system is known as a non-articulated laticifer, to distinguish it from the multi-cellular structures discussed above. In the mature plant, the entire laticiferous system is descended from a single cell or group of cells present in the embryo.
The laticiferous system is present in all parts of the mature plant, including roots, stems, leaves, and sometimes the fruits. It is particularly noticeable in the cortical tissues. Latex is usually exuded as a white liquid, but is some cases it can be clear, yellow or red, as in Cannabaceae.
Latex is produced by 20,000 flowering plant species from over 40 families. These include both dicots and monocots. Latex has been found in 14 percent of tropical plant species, as well as six percent of temperate plant species. Several members of the fungal kingdom also produce latex upon injury, such as Lactarius deliciosus and other milk-caps. This suggests it is the product of convergent evolution and has been selected for on many separate occasions.
Latex functions to protect the plant from herbivores. The idea was first proposed in 1887 by Joseph F. James, who noted that latex
carries with it at the same time such disagreeable properties that it becomes a better protection to the plant from enemies than all the thorns, prickles, or hairs that could be provided. In this plant, so copious and so distasteful has the sap become that it serves a most important purpose in its economy.
Evidence showing this defense function include the finding that slugs will eat leaves drained of their latex but not intact ones, that many insects sever the veins carrying latex before they feed, and that the latex of Asclepias humistrata (sandhill milkweed) kills by trapping 30% of newly hatched monarch butterfly caterpillars.
Other evidence is that latex contains 50-1000× higher concentrations of defense substances than other plant tissues. These toxins include ones that are also toxic to the plant and consist of a diverse range of chemicals that are either poisonous or "antinutritive". Latex is actively moved to the area of injury; in the case of Cryptostegia grandiflora, this can be more than 70 cm.
The clotting property of latex is functional in this defense since it limits wastage and its stickiness traps insects and their mouthparts.
While there exist other explanations for the existence of latex including storage and movement of plant nutrients, waste, and maintenance of water balance that "[e]ssentially none of these functions remain credible and none have any empirical support".
The latex of many species can be processed to produce many materials.
Natural rubber is the most important product obtained from latex; more than 12,000 plant species yield latex containing rubber, though in the vast majority of those species the rubber is not suitable for commercial use. This latex is used to make many other products including mattresses, gloves, swim caps, condoms, catheters and balloons.
Dried latex from the opium poppy is called opium, the source of several useful analgesic alkaloids such as codeine, thebaine, and morphine, the latter two of which can then further be used in the synthesis and manufacture of other (typically stronger) opioids for medicinal use, and of heroin for the illegal drug trade. The opium poppy is also the source of medically useful non-analgesic alkaloids, such as papaverine and noscapine.
Synthetic latexes are used in coatings (e.g., latex paint) and glues because they solidify by coalescence of the polymer particles as the water evaporates. These synthetic latexes therefore can form films without releasing potentially toxic organic solvents in the environment. Other uses include cement additives and to conceal information on scratchcards. Latex, usually styrene-based, is also used in immunoassays.
Others have a serious latex allergy, and exposure to latex products such as latex gloves can cause anaphylactic shock. Guayule latex has only 2% of the levels of protein found in Hevea latexes, and is being researched as a lower-allergen substitute. Additionally, chemical processes may be employed to reduce the amount of antigenic protein in Hevea latex, yielding alternative materials such as Vytex Natural Rubber Latex which provide significantly reduced exposure to latex allergens.
This section needs expansion. You can help by adding to it. (August 2014)
Several species of the microbe genera Actinomycetes, Streptomyces, Nocardia, Micromonospora, and Actinoplanes are capable of consuming rubber latex. However, the rate of biodegradation is slow, and the growth of bacteria utilizing rubber as a sole carbon source is also slow.