Using genetically altered silkworms, scientists have successfully produced spider silk, producing fibres that are six times more durable than Kevlar, a substance that is often used in bulletproof vests.
This groundbreaking study is the first to produce full-length spider silk proteins using silkworms, offering a technique that might lead to the development of an environmentally benign alternative to widely used synthetic commercial fibres like nylon.
Solving problems using synthetic fibres
Although synthetic fibres like nylon are often utilised, their manufacture from fossil fuels results in greenhouse gas emissions and they have the potential to generate harmful microplastics.
Therefore, because of its remarkable mechanical qualities and prospective uses in a variety of industries, including medical sutures, textiles, the military, aerospace technology, and biomedical engineering, scientists have been looking at spider silk as a sustainable substitute.
Improving the production of spider silk
With established rearing processes, silkworm silk is the only animal silk fibre that is commercially produced on a big scale. According to Junpeng Mi, a PhD candidate at Donghua University’s College of Biological Science and Medical Engineering, using genetically modified silkworms creates opportunities for the low-cost, mass production of spider silk fibres.
This option is not just novel, but it also addresses recurring problems with the production of spider silk, such giving the silk a protective “skin layer” that shields it from moisture and sunlight. Due to their comparable protective covering on their fibres, genetically engineered silkworms solve this issue and are the best option for producing spider silk.
A stage in the evolution of silk synthesis
Mi and his colleagues successfully synthesised spider silk protein by incorporating its genes into the DNA of silkworms, therefore guaranteeing its production in their glands. One of the most difficult aspects of the research, according to Mi, was the many microinjections into fertilised silkworm eggs during this complex procedure that used CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology.
The crew was thrilled and celebrated when they saw the red light in the silkworms’ eyes under a fluorescence microscope, signifying the effectiveness of gene editing. In order to ensure that the fibre is spun correctly, further “localization” changes were necessary to match the transgenic spider silk proteins with proteins found in the silkworm glands.
In order to direct these changes, the researchers also suggested a “minimal basic structure model” of silkworm silk—a notion that Mi highlights as a critical departure from earlier studies.
Engineered spider silk in the future
Junpeng Mi anticipates using the knowledge acquired from this research to create genetically altered silkworms that can produce spider silk fibres from both naturally occurring and synthetically produced amino acids, therefore significantly improving the toughness and strength of spider silk fibres.
This opens up the prospect of creating more than a hundred synthetic amino acids, which presents a huge opportunity for the creation of synthetic spider silk fibres.
Mi is optimistic about the possibility of this innovation being widely commercialised. She promises a sustainable and adaptable material that could transform a variety of industries, providing solutions for everything from medical sutures to more comfortable clothing and cutting-edge bulletproof vests to more than 300 million procedures performed globally each year.
In conclusion, this groundbreaking study addresses the ecological shortcomings of synthetic fibres and represents a huge step towards the manufacture of sustainable and ecologically friendly materials. It clears the path for broad applications across several fields, hence enhancing the potential of bioengineered products to solve contemporary issues.
Future developments in the field of spider silk synthesis, which are expected to provide further breakthroughs and discoveries, are encouraging for the convergence of sustainability and technology.
More on silk spiders
The journal Matter has the whole research accessible for viewing.