6 Spider-Silk Superpowers
Stronger than steel and more elastic than a rubber band, spider silk has dozens of potential applications in construction, medicine, and the military. In recent years, scientists have suggested using spider silk to construct products as diverse as biodegradable water bottles, flexible bridge suspension cables, and unrippable writing paper.
However, Utah State University spider-silk researcher Randy Lewis says, "virtually nobody has had a sufficient amount of spider-silk material to make a full-scale test of these product ideas." The problem is that spiders tend to be murderous and cannibalistic toward each other—they’re not exactly what you might call farm-friendly animals. That makes spider silk difficult to mass produce, and harvesting it from the wild can take years.
"With our new silkworms, we’re going to be able to change that completely," Lewis says. He’s part of a team that recently . The researchers added genes that code for spider-silk proteins into the silkworms’ DNA, and the transgenic worms spun those spider proteins into their own silk. Although scientists have been harvesting similar proteins from the milk of transgenic goats, it has been difficult to find the right equipment to spin the tiny molecules into thread, he says. This new approach streamlines production, since silkworms do the spinning themselves. The resulting fibers are twice as strong and twice as elastic as normal silkworm silk. And since silkworms are vegetarians, they are highly farmable and have already proven their ability to make silk on an industrial scale.
If the technique is perfected, it could finally enable researchers and inventors to test the craziest possible applications of spider silk, and to bring its unique mechanical properties to the mass market. If it works, you might someday see these six surprising spider-silk products.