By Jeremy Pelzer
CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) – Watch out, Spider-Man: Your webbing is about to be used for more than fighting crime.
University of Wyoming professor Don Jarvis, along with collaborators in Indiana, Utah and Michigan, has developed a revolutionary technique to inject silkworms with spider DNA, resulting in a silk that’s several times stronger and more durable than traditional silk.
Within the next year or two, researchers say, silkworms could be producing 100 percent spider silk to be used in everything from stronger underwear to artificial tendons to body armor.
“This material is so superior, it’s hard to see why anyone would prefer to have regular silk when they could have spider silk or a spider silk blend,” said Kim Thompson, CEO of Kraig Biocraft, a Michigan-based company with exclusive rights to market the new fiber. “I do think that it’s going to largely replace the regular silk market.”
A couple of years ago, Jarvis and fellow UW professor Randy Lewis had offices next to each other at the school’s Animal Sciences/Molecular Biology Building. Lewis had isolated the genes in spiders that cause them to make silk webbing and was studying how to manufacture large amounts of spider silk. Jarvis’ specialty was silkworms.
One day, the two began chatting about their research. Lewis talked about how setting up a spider silk farm was impossible, as the arachnids are territorial and cannibalistic. A second plan, to implant spider silk proteins in goats then harvest the silk through their milk, was expensive and inefficient.
That’s when Jarvis brought up his line of work.
“When we got to talking about things, it was like, ‘Why are you making that protein in goats? I think if you made it in silkworms, you’d be better off,”’ Jarvis said. “And he said, ‘Yeah, yeah, we should do that.”’
Meanwhile, 1,000 miles to the east, Thompson was having a similar discussion with University of Notre Dame biological sciences professor Malcolm Fraser, who specializes in gene insertion techniques.
The pair started collaborating with Jarvis and Lewis – who now teaches at Utah State University – to find a way to insert spider genes into silkworm eggs. The silkworms that hatched would be mated together, the plan went, and their offspring would be able to produce spider silk instead of regular silk.1 2 next >>