Scientists Turn Spider Silk into Clothing

By: Brad Kloza
By: Brad Kloza

Spiderman got a new outfit this summer, but you may have his eight-legged friends to thank for the next fashion trend.

Scientists are working on turning synthetic spider silk into clothing and even lightweight body armor.

The black widow is known for its deadly venom, but the spider’s silk may one day save lives. Dragline silk - what spiders use to hold themselves up - is pound for pound, five times tougher than steel or kevlar, but as biologist Cheryl Hayashi explains, the problem is getting a pound of silk from the spiders.

“Spiders are predatory animals. They don’t tolerate neighbors very well, so you couldn’t put a whole bunch of spiders in one cage. If you do that, you might end up with just a few big, fat spiders,” laughed Hayashi, with the University of California - Riverside.

Hayashi and Nadia Ayoub are part of a team at University of California - Riverside, that decoded two genes spiders use to produce the silk. Harnessing its power could lead to new bulletproof vests, super strong rope and artificial tendons. Other scientists had only decoded 30 percent of these genes.

“The other end of the gene seems to have properties that are important for either making the protein or for the function of the fiber,” Ayoub said.

How to use the gene sequences is still under development. Hayashi said one idea is to splice them into crops.

“That way they could be grown very cheaply, you know, by the acre and then the silk protein would be extracted from the plant material and this would be the way that we could get, you know, very large amounts of spider silks,” Hayashi explained. “We could get spider silk by the ton.”

Researchers say it will be a few years before we can buy spider silk athletic gear and high-performance rope. The first customers for spider silk body armor - the U.S. Army is already eager for it. For more video of how strong spider silk is, visit www.sciencentral.com.


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