Bulletproof vests, synthetic skin, biodegradable water bottles, computer electronics. For years we’ve been hearing about the Amazing Spider Silk: Five times stronger than steel! Three times stronger than Kevlar! Now it looks like it’s finally getting ready for commercialization, ACS Chemical & Engineering News reports.
Since gathering silk from farm-raised spiders isn’t really an option (they’re territorial and cannibalistic), scientists have turned to transgenic organisms. To make synthetic versions of simple proteins in the lab, relevant genes are inserted into bacteria DNA, turning the microbes into tiny protein factories. But spider silk protein is complex, and it’s been difficult to churn out. Not to mention, the fiber is so fine, over a thousand strands are needed to make a thread.
Big names like DuPont and BASF have bowed out after several years of investment, but now it looks like a handful of smaller biotechs have finally figured it out.
Germany-based AMSilk has managed to coax genetically engineered E. coli to express the protein derived from the European garden cross spider in a fermentation process. A few months ago, the company began selling their iteration -- a nonfiber kind of spider silk -- for use in cosmetics and shampoos. Spider silk attaches to keratin to make damaged hair silkier.
The company plans to introduce a wound-healing spray in May and a coating for silicone breast implants by 2015. “This is scalable technology,” AMSilk’s Axel Leimer tells C&EN. “If someone ordered 1 ton, we could make it. We have already made a half a ton.” They’re begun outsourcing production and targeting sales of more than $100 million once large-scale production is under way.
Here are some other companies developing spider silk:
1. Michigan-based Kraig Biocraft Laboratories is scaling up a process to manufacture a hybrid spider-silkworm silk fiber from transgenic silkworms. They’ll be commercializing the silk with textiles firm Warwick Mills.
2. Japanese startup Spiber is developing E. coli spider silk processes. A single gram of their protein product produces nine kilometers (5.6 miles) of artificial silk. The company plans to open a pilot facility by 2015 that can produce 100 kilograms of spider silk fiber per month.
3. Korea Advanced Institute of Science & Technology (KAIST) in South Korea is also utilizing engineered E. coli. They’re currently considering a commercial partnership to manufacture a silk that’s stronger than Kevlar.
4. Araknitek, a Utah State spin-out, is looking into four different hosts: E. coli, goats, silkworms, and alfalfa. Their transgenic goats carry a gene from orb weaver spiders, and they end up making the silk protein in their milk. They’ll begin commercial tests on their suture thread in the next few months.
It’s still not clear if spider silk can be produced cheaply and in high enough volume. While commercialization thus far has been on a modest scale, these efforts go to show how the research pipeline is very active, C&EN explains, and that production is right on the verge of scaling up.
Image: Ray Habens via Flickr