Is that shirt on your back made partially out of spider silk? Well, not yet. But that question may have a different answer in the not too distant future. Researchers around the world are working hard to untangle one of nature's greatest mysteries: exactly how do spiders make silk and can it be produced on a commercial scale by man.
The reason for all the interest in spider silk relates to its extraordinary qualities, unlike anything currently available. Although there are different types of spider silk, and different ways of measuring strength, it is generally considered to have a tensile strength (ability to resist tearing) far greater than steel by weight, in addition to being much more elastic than other tough fibers, such as Dupont's KevlarÂ®, Honeywell International Inc.'s (NYSE: HON) Dyneema, or Cytec Industries, Inc. (NYSE: CYT) and Hexcel Corp.'s (NYSE: HXL) carbon fibers. It is also hypoallergenic and biodegradable. But perhaps the most remarkable property of spider silk is its weight, or lack of it. All of its unique features are wrapped up in a molecular structure so light that a strand of spider silk long enough to circle the earth could weigh less than one pound.
Strength and elasticity, without significant weight, is a combination of properties offering countless industrial and commercial applications. But it does nobody any good if it can't be produced in the volumes necessary, and therein rests the biggest problem. There is currently no proven large scale way to produce spider silk. It turns out that you can't just corral a bunch of spiders to spin their magic. Spiders are, by nature, predatory, and will attack one another. So the search is on for a way to transplant the already identified genetic machinery of the spider into more production friendly animals.
Researchers in various universities have uncovered the structure of different spider silks, and have developed some laboratory level procedures for producing it, but few individual companies have taken on the challenge.
â€¢ EI DuPont de Nemours & Co. (NYSE: DD) took an early look at spider silk, creating fibers that had two of the main proteins, but their recent progress is unclear, and they still depend upon their KevlarÂ® aramid fiber for the marketplace.
â€¢ Researchers at the University of Wyoming, University of the Pacific, the University of California, and at Shinshu University in Japan uncovered the molecular structure of the gene for the protein that various female spider species use to make their silken egg cases, but not how to produce the silk in large amounts.
â€¢ Nexia Biotechnologies in Canada has managed to produce the spider silk protein in the milk of transgenic goats, but ongoing technical issues related to commercial scale production has led them to refocus on small scale fiber applications.
But now another company, Michigan-based Kraig Biocraft Laboratories, Inc. (OTCBB: KBLB), has taken a unique approach. The development stage biotechnology company has successfully inserted spider silk DNA packets into silkworms, allowing the silkworms to produce spider silk related proteins. And recently the company announced that it has performed 5,000 such insertions in a single week, greatly increasing the odds of developing a viable spider silk polymer using silkworms, an animal already domesticated for production. An added benefit for the company is the fact that its particular area of genetic research does not require FDA approval, knocking months or years off the development process.
It now seems at least within the realm of possibility that spider silk will someday be available for lightweight bullet-proof vests, industrial filaments, and a hundred other applications, including perhaps the shirt on your back.
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