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Genetically Modified Silkworms Produce Stronger-Than-Steel Spider Silk

"...the holy grail of fiber technology."

Earlier this year, an artist with the help of Forensic Genomics Consortium Netherlands and Utah State University created "bullet-proof skin" from human skin cells and modified spider silk. Now, research out of University of Wyoming has genetically modified silkworms to produce spider silk in viable quantities.

BBC reports that "farming" spider silk from arachnids is not cost-effective because they do not produce enough of the material. Silkworms, on the other hand, can make more material but without the coveted strength of spider silk.

According to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which published the research this month, scientists created transgenic silkworms that produced material that was a combination of both silks. The researchers state that the silk was stronger than that of just the parent silkworm and "as tough as native dragline spider silk fibers."

Discovery Magazine reports that only 2 to 5 percent of the silk produced was like that from spiders, but it was enough to make it significantly stronger and reveals a viable technique to modify the worms with successful outcomes:

 “The next step will be to produce silkworms that produce silk fibres consisting entirely of spider silk proteins,” says [Dr Donald Jarvis lead researcher from the University of Wyoming]

The Daily Mail has more on spider silk applications from Jarvis:

"Spider silks have enormous potential as biomaterials for various applications, but serious obstacles to spider farming preclude the natural manufacturing approach.

"Thus, there is a need to develop an effective biotechnological approach for spider silk fibre production.

"In addition to being used as sutures, silk fibres hold great potential as biomaterials for wound dressings, artificial ligaments, tendons, tissue scaffolds, microcapsules, and other applications.

"Silkworms are the current biological source of silk sutures, but spider silk fibres have superior mechanical properties that are ideal for procedures requiring finer sutures, such as ocular, neurological, and cosmetic surgeries.

"These results demonstrate that silkworms can be engineered to manufacture composite silk fibres containing stably integrated spider silk protein sequences, which significantly improve the overall mechanical properties of the parental silkworm silk fibres."

Discover Magazine describes the strength of spider silk as the toughest biological material in existence and 10 times tougher than Kevlar.

In 2010, the University of Notre Dame and researchers at Wyoming collaborated to create an artificial material similar to that of spider silk. Learn more about that discovery, which was the first commercially viable platform for creating this strong material at the time, in this video:

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