Scientists at Notre Dame and the University of Wyoming have succeeded in producing transgenic silkworms capable of spinning artificial spider silks which could be used in bandages and bulletproof vests.
Malcolm Fraser Jr, a Notre Dame professor of biological sciences, said this was a key goal in the field of materials science.
“This research represents a significant breakthrough in the development of superior silk fibres for both medical and non-medical applications,” he said.
Natural spider silks have a number of unusual physical properties, including significantly higher strength and elasticity than naturally spun silkworm fibres.
In conjunction with Kraig Biocraft, Fraser developed and patented a genetic engineering tool called “PiggyBac”. By inserting specific spider genes into silkworm chromosomes, Fraser and his colleagues Randy Lewis and Don Jarvis grew a colony which produced threads nearly as strong as native spider silk.
The silk produced is not ordinary silkworm silk, but, rather, a combination of silkworm silk and spider silk.
Fraser said the silk had many possible biomedical applications and could be used to make sutures and wound-healing bandages as well as bulletproof vests (some spider silks can be tougher than Kevlar), or even a new generation of airbags for cars.
Biomedical engineer David Kaplan of Tufts University told Wired.com this marked a big step forward, but cautioned that until a scientific paper was published there was no way to know how useful the silk would prove.
Gregory Holland of Arizona State University – who has studied spider silk fibres and in the past collaborated with one of the researchers involved – also said it would be difficult to gauge potential applications at this stage.
“If they’re producing something that’s stronger than silkworm strength but is still five times less strong than spider silk, then it’s not nearly as big of an accomplishment,” he told BusinessWeek.
Until now, only very small quantities of artificial spider silk had ever been produced in laboratories.
“It’s very difficult to get spiders to make a whole lot of silk. They usually don’t make very large quantities,” Fraser said at a news conference at Notre Dame.
“For the first time it’s possible to make spider silk commercially usable.
“We may even be able to genetically engineer fibres that exceed the remarkable properties of native spider silk.”