Silkworms get gene swap, make super-strong 'spider' web
Biologists have genetically modified silkworms to produce spider silk, an achievement with vast potential medical and textile uses.
Wed, Sep 29, 2010 at 04:58 PM
SPIDER SILK: Natural spider silks have unusual physical properties, such as much higher tensile strength and elasticity than natural silk fibers. (Photo: jupiterimages)
U.S. biologists may have one-upped Spiderman, genetically modifying silkworms to produce spider silk with properties similar to natural spider web, a stunning achievement with vast potential medical and textile use.
Research published Wednesday highlights the process that can be used for industrial production of fibers that until now could only be produced in laboratories in tiny quantities.
"This research represents a significant breakthrough in the development of superior silk fibers for both medical and non-medical applications," said Malcolm Fraser, professor of biological sciences at Notre Dame University who worked with University of Wyoming biochemist Randy Lewis and Kraig Biocraft Laboratories, Inc. on the project.
"The generation of silk fibers having the properties of spider silks has been one of the important goals in materials science," Fraser stressed.
That is because natural spider silks have unusual physical properties, such as much higher tensile strength and elasticity than natural silk fibers.
And artificial spider silks produced by these transgenic silkworms have similar properties of strength and flexibility to natural spider webbing, said the scientists who announced the development at Notre Dame in Indiana.
Previously only tiny amounts of spider silks had been made in labs.
But this development opens the door to viable large-scale production.
Among the potential biomedical uses of the fibers: "fine suture materials, improved wound healing bandages, or natural scaffolds for tendon and ligament repair or replacement," the scientists said in a statement.
"Spider silk-like fibers may also have applications beyond biomedical uses, such as in bulletproof vests, strong and lightweight structural fabrics, a new generation athletic clothing and improved automobile airbags," they added.
When the transgenic silkworms spin their cocoons, they aren't making silk or spider silks, the scientists explained.
"Silk produced is not ordinary silkworm silk, but, rather, a combination of silkworm silk and spider silk. The genetically engineered silk protein produced by the transgenic silkworms has markedly improved elasticity and strength approaching that of native spider silk," they added.
Copyright 2010 AFP Global Edition