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Spider Silk: The Fabric of the Future

spider silk a future fabric

Pound for pound, spider silk is stronger than steel, as elastic as rubber, and tougher than Kevlar. Throughout history, spider silk has had many uses. Hunters in Tanzania used spider webs for fishing line and in ancient Greece, they were used to close wounds. Spider silk is one of, if not, the strongest fibers known to man. Apart from its unrivaled durability, spider silk is also antimicrobial, hypoallergenic, biodegradable, waterproof, and heat-stable in temperatures up to 250 degrees Celsius.

Spider Silk Uses

The applications for spider silk are innumerous. As a fiber, it can replace all petroleum-based fibers and may even be an eco-friendly substitute for plastics. As for medical purposes, the applications are even better. Spider silk is completely biocompatible with human tissue because it’s made mostly of proteins, which are the building blocks for organic material. It would be able to replace metal and plastic materials that cause irritation for scaffolding in surgical procedures. Here are some possible uses for spider silk:

  • Band-aid
  • Stitching
  • Prosthetics
  • Knee replacements
  • Bone repair
  • Nerve repair
  • Artificial skin
  • Brain implants
  • Capsules for drug administration
  • Rope
  • Clothes
  • Bulletproof armor
  • Parachutes
  • Building materials
spider silk is one of the strongest fibers known to man

Harvesting Spider Silk

Spiders are naturally territorial and cannibalistic, so farming them is pretty much a hopeless effort. Maybe it would be possible if they had their own containers, but it would take a lot of them. To spin 1 square yard of silk it would take about 400 spiders. For years scientists have attempted to recreate the qualities of the spider’s silk by crossing the silk gene with unique plants, animals, and bacteria but  have been largely unsuccessful until recently.

Nexia Biotechnologies gave the silk gene to goats in a way that it could be produced from the goat’s milk. The silk protein would then be extracted, purified, and reconstituted into fibers. The result, dubbed Biosteel, was reported to be 7-10 times stronger than steel and could stretch 20 times its original size.

Kraig Biocraft Laboratories bred the spider silk protein in silkworms. Results were quite successful, but a silkworm’s silk differs from a spider. Silk from a silkworm is thicker and contains a sticky protein called sericin that must be removed before it can be used, so it requires extra processing. On the other hand, spiders create 7 kinds of silk, some without the sticky element.

The latest and most successful effort so far, conducted by researchers at the School of Engineering & Applied Science at Washington University, grew the silk protein in E. Coli bacteria. The study, published in Biomacromolecules, demonstrated the silk was equal to spider silk in every way and could be easily produced.

Existing Technologies

Dutch entrepreneur and artist Jalila Essaïdi made an experimental bulletproof skin, although it doesn’t have many applications just yet. It won’t slow the force of a bullet but it doesn’t allow penetration through that layer. If it was used as a clothing material for military purposes it could at least make bullet removal an easy process. Spider silk tech is the future!

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