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Modified silkworms create spider silk

Swatches | December 1, 2023 | By:

Spider silk fibers produced by genetically modified silkworms. Image: Donghua University/Junpeng Mi

Production of spider silk on a commercial scale may soon be possible. Chinese scientists recently synthesized full-length fibers thanks to genetically modified silkworms.

Spider silk is known for both its tensile strength and fiber toughness, and the researchers are “challenging the conventional notion that these properties are contradictory,” according to the study, which was published in Matter in September.

Previously developed processes for spinning artificial versions have struggled to apply the equivalent of the natural material’s protective layer that helps it withstand humidity and exposure to sunlight—an anti-aging layer that spiders apply. Genetically modifying silkworms offers a solution to this problem since silkworms coat their own fibers with a similar protective layer, says Junpeng Mi, a Ph.D. candidate at the College of Biological Science and Medical Engineering at Donghua University and lead author of the study. 

Producing spider silk with silkworms could present the best of both species. Silkworm fibers are not as strong as spider silk, but spiders cannot be farmed like silkworms can—hence the decades of research into artificial versions. People have harvested silk from silkworms for about 5,000 years.

Compared in equivalent quantities, spider silk is stronger than steel and tougher than Kevlar®, so commercial quantities could appeal to many different markets. It could be used for surgical sutures, bulletproof vests and smart fabrics, and it could be an alternative to nylon.

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