While spiders are an unusual resource to mine for silk, which is traditionally harvested and used from the cocoon of a silk worm, new science taps into the undiscovered usefulness of the high tinsel strength spiders weave in their silk. This report will cite a few examples of the untapped potential starting to be uncovered.
Shigeyoshi Osaki at Nara Medical Center in Japan has been studying spider silk for nearly 35 years. For the last ten years he has been stretching and twisting the sticky web trying to perfect it into a new material for violin strings. The thickest of the strings uses 15,000 filaments of spider silk. Osaki collaborated with violinist and physicist at Cornell University, Katherine Selby, to put his strings to the test. While comparing the new violin strings to traditional materials like steel, nylon, and gut, he found that while steel and nylon strings tend to be stronger in low harmonics, the spider silk strings gave off a unique “brilliant” tone stronger in high harmonics. The silky violin strings have not yet hit the market but unless they are going on a Stradivarius, they may outweigh the instrument.
A German biotech firm, AMSilk, developed a way to produce spider silk protein by genetically modifying a strain of the e coli bacteria; and when injected with spider silk making proteins, rewires the bacteria to produce more of them. The proteins are turned into a silk powder that is added to shampoos and conditioner. The silk proteins in the powder reportedly stick to the keratin proteins in hair making it feel… silkier.
This may be the most unusually useful use for spider silk on the list. Another innovation from AMSilk, they create a thin sheen of silk proteins to blanket the outer material of a breast implant. Commonly when foreign materials like plastics and silicone are introduced under the skin they can cause the immune system to strike back leading to irritation, scarring, and other unpleasant complications from the beauty enhancement process. The silk protein is adapted naturally into the body, allowing the new bosom to rest easy.
Spiber, a Swedish biotech group, produces a super protein rich strain of spider silk through another bacteria injected process. One gram of this super spider protein can create 5.6 miles of artificial silk and in turn make hundreds of silk screws to mend bone fractures instead of metal plates and screws. Unlike metals and plastics, the composition of silk is more like the protein composition of our own bodies allowing it to be naturally tolerated and absorbed when it is not needed anymore. Because the silk is biodegradable and invisible to X-ray, it does not interfere with the doctor’s ability to diagnose.
A biology professor from Utah State University, Randy Lewis, founded Araknitek in 2012 which uses genetically modified goats which produce spider silk protein in their milk. Lewis’ study which is housed at the university implements large fermentation vats to process the goats’ milk and synthesize the spider silk. Araknitek plans to commercialize the application into products used for the growing technology of three-dimensional printing as well as using the silk strands to strengthen tire threads.
As science continues to develop the unusual characteristics of spider silk and other naturally occurring resources that can be manipulated through genetic mutation, the uses and commercial applications have begun to weave a wonderful web of untapped and useful potential.
Opinion by Cody Long