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by Larry

January, 2017

Synthetic Spider Silk - Super!

A company aptly calling itself Bolt Threads claims to be ready and in contract to make commercially viable artificial spider silk, a material that is reportedly stronger than steel. The enterprise got started awhile ago as a research venture, but since has successfully raised over $50 million to get underway as a profitable business. Nor is this the only company getting into the artificial silk phenomenon.

Researchers have long realized that the properties of spider silk, if somehow the substance could be available in bulk and easily manipulated as thread, looked to be terrific for a variety of functions. Textiles probably had been in their minds first, but it is also being considered or even used for artificial muscles, violin strings, gene therapy, electronics, bullet-proof vests, mending bones, automotive materials, surgery sutures, athletic- and footwear, covering wounds, etc.

Though really soft, "breathable," and light-weight, fabrics or threads made of spider silk can have great strength, insulation attributes, toughness, stretch, beauty, and flexibility. However, harvesting silk from spiders is almost a non-starter, almost because it has, with great labor intensity, actually been done on small scales. The amount of work required to pull it off and make a garment out of it is such that any spider silk clothing made today would probably be worth millions. By comparison, using silk from moth caterpillars is cheap. The latter, though, lack the remarkable advantages of spider silk in other ways.

Now various means have been found of getting artificial silk. These range from changing the DNA of goats (so they produce "spider silk" protein in their milk), to making the silk out of bioengineered yeast, to customized products via molecular manipulation, cultivations of bacteria, etc.

In clothing applications, one day synthetic spider silk products from yeast may replace petroleum-based textiles such as polyester and nylon. Yeast has advantages, after all, over those products: it is highly renewable, less energy demanding, less polluting of the environment, and can be designed to be biodegradable.

Now that bigger amounts of artificial spider silk may soon be available and many medical applications seem in the offing, can it be long before movies based on comic heroes cease to be so sci-fi? In a sense, tomorrow we may in fact be spider-men and spider-women, men, and women too, of synthetic "steel." May it serve us well!

Primary sources:
-Big Science Behind This Modern Fabric House.
Jason Daley in; October 21, 2016;
-Large Quantities of Synthetic Spider Silk Spun On Demand. Colin Jeffrey in; January 10, 2017.

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