Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Synthetic spider silk

Molecular biologist, materials scientist, and chemist Randy Lewis of Utah State University has been striving to synthesize spider silk for 25 years. Natural spider silk is 25X stronger than steel by weight and 3X tougher than Kevlar. Its most obvious commercial applications include cables and bulletproof vests, but its thermal conductivity makes it a potential heat management material. Spider silk also has antimicrobial properties suitable for wound patches and it is not rejected by the human body, so it could be used to manufacture artificial tendons and surgical sutures. Challenges to synthesizing the spider's silk are that the relevant gene needs to be copied and inserted into an organism such as bacteria that can express it, the protein is insoluble in water, and 1,500 strands of the fiber are needed to make a single thread, so firms have had to invent new spinning systems. After years of research and development, DuPont and BASF have dropped out of the race, but several smaller companies - including Utah State's spin-off company Araknitekhave - have made progress and are on the brink of producing commercial products. German firm AMSilk has spent $16 million (€11,560,000) on R&D and is now selling spider silk protein in quantities as needed for inclusion in products like shampoo, since it adheres to keratin. Managing Director Axel H. Leimer says, This is scalable technology. If someone ordered 1 ton, we could make it. We have already made a half a ton.The firm plans large-scale output of recombinant spider silk for use in fibers and high-performance textiles after next year. It's all good news for the overworked harnessed spider population!

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