UT alumna to speak about spider silk’s potentials

Danielle Ransom

Students may not be able to swing through the city skyline on spider webs, but they are one step closer to having consumer goods make out of spider silk. 

Researchers and biotechnology companies have begun genetically modifying viable organisms, such as goats, to produce spider silk for consumer goods.     

“​Spider silk is simply a fascinating material, not only because of its potential use in a variety of human products, but because of its really interesting and unique natural history,” said Emma Dietrich, a graduate student in the UT Department of Integrative Biology.

Companies are in the early phases of developing spider silk products, but they plan to produce goods as soon as they figure out how to manufacture silk wholescale, according to Dietrich. 

Dietrich will give a talk on the possibilities of spider silk at Science Under the Stars, which will be hosted at the Brackenridge Field Laboratory on Thursday. 

Researchers have been studying the genetic makeup that allows 40,000 spider species to produce silk. A strand of spider silk is finer than a human hair, and five times stronger than steel of the same diameter.        

Spider silk interests researchers because of its unique qualities, such elasticity, strength and low permeability. Because of these qualities, some companies have started seeking ways to adapt spider silk for human use in products such as bulletproof vests.    

Spider silk is the ultimate biomaterial because it is strong yet biodegradable, according to the journal Nature Chemical Biology.        

Though researchers speculate spider silk would be useful as a clothing material, they had difficulty harvesting enough silk to directly test durability in clothing until recently, according to Dietrich.

Different biotech companies and individual researchers have genetically modified other organisms, such as goats and silkworms, to produce spider silk. 

A company called Spiber, located in Stockholm, Sweden, has genetically modified bacteria to produce the fibroin protein that makes up spider silk. To do this, they took a portion of the gene sequence that enables spiders to produce silk and cloned it into E. coli bacteria. Spiber can produce biomaterial silk in the forms of fiber, film, foam and mesh, according to their website.        

The Center of PostNatural History, located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has genetically modified goats called BioSteelTM Goats to do something similar, according their website. The goats were genetically modified by transferring the silk-coding gene from the golden orb spider into the goat’s genome. This enabled the goat to produce silk in its milk, which scientists then harvested.

“Now that researchers have come up with some new ways to produce artificial silk that are much faster and more feasible, I predict that in the next couple years, we will see a lot more direct testing of silk clothes,”
Dietrich said.