Mutant Silkworms Produce Super Strong Spider Silk (Video)

silkworms on leaves photo

Photo via Fastily at en.wikipedia

Scientists have been studying for years how to mass produce spider silk, a super strong wonder-material that we could use for countless purposes, if we could make enough of it. While some researchers work on devising the secret chemical mix for manufacturing the stuff, others are working on altering bugs that already produce something akin to spider silk -- namely silkworms. By adding spider genes to silkworms, scientists were able to raise a handful that can produce silk nearly as strong as that of spiders. According to University of Notre Dame, the university alongside the University of Wyoming, and Kraig Biocraft Laboratories, Inc., successfully produced silkworms capable of spinning silk similar to that of spiders by adding two genes from spiders to silkworm chromosomes.

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

It's been such a focused goal because spider silk can be used for anything from bandages to ligament replacement in humans, from bulletproof vests to better airbags for cars.

Why go with silkworms? Well, so far no one has been able to artificially produce silk with the same properties as that of spiders -- strong as steel yet flexible -- and trying to gather enough from captive spiders is equally as difficult since they tend to eat one another in captivity. By adding DNA of spiders to silkworms, the researchers found that the cocoons spun by the genetically engineered worms is much closer to that of spiders than silkworms. Since the practice of breeding silkworms and harvesting cocoons has been around for years, it seems the researchers have made a big step forward in mass-producing super strong silk.

There will no doubt be some objections to genetically engineering silkworms for our own purposes, and certain practices in the silkworm farming industry are worth scrutinizing. However, it no doubt a step forward in how we might produce fibers that could be life-saving for humans.

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