Genetically engineering silkworms to make artificial spider silk

Researchers announce a breakthrough in materials science. Now, there's a commercially viable way to produce artificial spider silk proteins.
Written by Boonsri Dickinson, Contributing Editor

Researchers have genetically engineered silkworms to make artificial spider silk. In the future, large scale production of artificial spider silk could lead to the development of stronger fibers for textiles, bandages for burn victims, and bulletproof vests. 

"This research represents a significant breakthrough in the development of superior silk fibers for both medical and non-medical applications," Notre Dame professor Malcolm J. Fraser Jr. said in a statement. "The generation of silk fibers having the properties of spider silks has been one of the important goals in materials science."

Fraser patented the piggyBac method a while ago. Transposons are sequences of DNA that can move to other parts of the genome in the same cell.

Transposons can be used to slip a piece of DNA into the genetic makeup of the cell. For that reason, piggyBac has become a useful tool to genetically modify insects.

Researchers thought it was possible to use piggyBac to produce artificial spider silk on a commercial scale.

Indeed, the researchers had good instincts.

The artificial silk produced did appear to be quite similar to spider silk. The transgenic silkworms have some DNA from spiders in it, so when they spin their cocoons the silk comes out part silkworm and part spider silk. The end result is stronger and more elastic silk than the silk produced by traditional silkworms.

"We've also made strides in improving the process of genetic engineering of these animals so that the development of additional transgenics is facilitated," Fraser said in a statement. "This will allow us to more rapidly assess the effectiveness of our gene manipulations in continued development of specialized silk fibers."

Scaling this neat laboratory experiment into something that could be commercially viable was the main hurdle. But Fraser has shown that it is possible to engineer these protein fibers so it can one day be mass produced.

Besides the medical applications, the artificial spider silk might even find its way into athletic clothing and much more.

Photos: Notre Dame

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