Amazing Spider Silk

Characterised by a dazzling gold colour, spider silk is a legendary material considered by some to be the ultimate textile. To date spider silk has been nearly impossible to produce in commercial amounts, but this may not be the case for long.

Prized by royalty, Louis XIV of France is said to have had a full suit, along with gloves and stockings woven from the distinctive yellow silk threads. And it is spiderman’s material of choice for good reason – spider silk is five times stronger than steel, as tough as Kevlar, but also lightweight, flexible and even has shape retention memory. Such properties make this material highly desirable for potential use in gear for soldiers, firefighters and police officers, as well as for performance sports apparel. Biocompatible and hypoallergenic, spider silk can also be used in the human body for artificial tendons, implant coatings or biomedical scaffolding for organs or skin.

Currently, production of spider silk is artisanal only. Gathering spider silk involves painlessly immobilizing spiders and then carefully pulling filament from their abdomen and rolling it around a spool. Achieving commercial production has been a challenge however because unlike silkworms, spiders are notoriously difficult to farm as they become aggressive and destroy each other in confined conditions. As a result, numerous specialists are looking to new biotechnology techniques to produce spider silk in a biosynthetic way.

Munich-based company AMSilk for example is currently working towards the commercial production of spider silk using a process that makes spider silk proteins with genetically altered E. Coli bacteria. The desired spider genes are implanted into the bacteria, which are grown in fermenters. The proteins are then spun to make silk fibres. Similarly, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science & Technology (KAIST) together with Janese startup Spiber are also developing spider silk through an E. Coli fermenting project.

A number of other companies are attempting to create spider silk using other biotechnology techniques. EntoGenetics for example claim they have developed a way to take a spider’s silk production genes and implant them into the chromosomes of silkworms, which are much easier to farm for the production of silk. And specialist Randy Lewis, head of Synthetic Biomanufacturing Institute at the University of Utah, breeds goats that carry spider silk protein in their milk. The protein can be extracted from the goat’s milk and spun into spider silk thread.

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