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How genetically engineered caterpillars spin silk stronger than steel

A research team has genetically altered silkworms to spin spider silk proteins, resulting in a fiber that is stronger than steel that can also be mass produced.

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Scientists have genetically engineered a silkworm that spins spider silk proteins, resulting in a material stronger than steel.

Biswaranjan Rout/AP

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Think of it as softness blended with strength: One research team has genetically engineered a silkworm that spins cocoons composed of about 95 percent silkworm proteins and 5 percent spider silk proteins. The composite silk is significantly stronger than regular silkworm silk and, researchers hope, as easy to produce in large quantities as regular silk. 

The research team reported on their results from two genetically engineered silkworms in this week’s issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Spider silk’s strength, lightness and flexibility make it an appealing material for sutures, artificial ligaments and tendons, bulletproof vests and more. So far, however, nobody has been able to harvest enough spider silk for practical use.

One problem is that people can’t farm spiders. The animals are territorial and, if kept in close quarters, have a tendency to eat each other. To get spider silk without cannibalizing spiders, several research teams have engineered cells and even goats to produce spider silk proteins. But that leads to a problem: how to spin that protein into large quantities of silken threads. 

“All of those platforms allow for protein production, but then they have to find a way to transform those proteins to fibers,” said Donald Jarvis, a biologist at the University of Wyoming who led the research on the silkworm-spider blend.

Jarvis decided to recruit some docile natural silk-spinners to help him. “It seemed to me that the silkworm was the way to go because they naturally spin fibers,” he told InnovationNewsDaily. 

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