Scientists Have Finally Figured Out How To Spin Artificial Silk The Way Spiders Do
An international team of scientists has devised artificial silk that becomes a slim yet tough fiber, with help from a machine designed to mimic the spinning spiders do naturally.
The silk isn’t quite as strong as the real thing, but the researchers have a few ideas for fine-tuning the technology so it can move a step closer to the market.
Spider-Man jokes aside, spider silk is a natural super-fiber. It’s made from protein, yet it is incredibly stretchy and strong. Pound-for-pound, some fibers of spider silk can absorb more energy than the bulletproof vest material Kevlar.
What’s more, spider silk doesn’t provoke immune responses in people, so the fiber has all kinds of medical possibilities, from wound healing patches to artificial tendons.
If spider silk is such big business, why isn’t it everywhere? One obvious-seeming option, farming spiders for their silk, isn’t realistic.
Spiders tend to get territorial and eat each other. So scientists have been trying for years to make artificial spider silk instead.
New advances make headlines every so often, but by and large making commercial-grade spider silk in labs has proven extremely challenging.
In the last couple of years, though, startups have stepped up to the plate. Japan’s Spiber Inc. has partnered with The North Face to make a synthetic spider silk coat called The Moon Parka.
San Francisco-based Bolt Threads has announced a deal with Patagonia. Both these companies use single-celled hosts (yeast or E. coli bacteria) to make silk proteins instead of spiders.
Other startups are exploring engineered silkworms, and even goats.
So where does this new research fit in? Currently, making spider silk in the lab is a multi-step process. Firms must first make the proteins, then purify them, and finally spin them into fibers.
There tend to be a couple of kinks in this process. One is that the proteins clump together, making fewer of them available for spinning.
Another is that the spinning process on its own produces relatively weak silk that needs additional processing.
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