Who doesn’t love silk? Silk isn’t just gorgeous on the outside but on the inside too. It has characteristics that people keep falling for. Although it may look like a vulnerable fabric, silk is actually the strongest natural fiber which can withstand pulling pressure, is wrinkle-resistant, elastic, great for all seasons, and barely catches dirt.
There are different kinds of silk, although all of them fall into similar characteristics. One silk that has been quite popular for its admirable characters is spider silk. Spider silk’s strength is comparable to steel; it is more elastic than rubber and lighter than carbon fiber. We haven’t reached to the point where we are able to wear spider silk in our clothing, but many companies are interested in developing the super tough silk.
The toughness of spider silk is comparable to Kevlar, the strongest synthetic fibers which have replaced the steel cables widely used in bridge suspension ropes, elevators, and even fighter jets’ wings. Kevlar is useful in many ways but it comes at a high price. Spider silk is much more cost-effective. This is also why many companies are interested in making businesses out of it.
Several companies have gotten their hands on the spider silk fibers, though many of them try the synthetic ones, and many of their projects are still in progress. However, there’s already one spider-silk product, and it comes from a California-based startup company, Bolt Threads. They’re making synthetic spider silk through a yeast fermentation process that produces a large quantity of silk protein. Their product is a $314 necktie that has been reviewed by MIT Technology Review and WIRED.
There are many extraordinary uses of spider silk that we are dying to explore. It’s not that simple as it takes so much effort.
Farming spiders is not quite a manageable job. Spiders are known to be cannibals which slows the process of getting enough spiders to create sufficient silk fibers. 14,000 spiders are needed to create an ounce of silk. That’s makes for hardship, but it’s not necessarily a dead end to create a business of spider silk.
So now the question is, how should they solve the spider cannibalism that gets in their way?
The answer is not to use spiders.
There are always alternatives. It turns out that the secret of spider silk’s strength is in the proteins produced by fibroin genes. Using gene synthetic technology, these proteins can also be genetically modified and carried by bacteria, yeast, insects, and even goats like the scientists in Utah States University has done. However, there’s still not as much production as they can get with it. It’s caused by the large content of protein that natural spider silk has, almost more than 250 kDa. In order to create mass production for large supplies, we have to come up with another viable solution. Quality is also a concern. Synthetic protein which spins the silk fiber lacks the strength of the naturally spun fibers.
The superhero that came to the scientists’ minds were the silkworms who are already producing silk of their own. Scientists edited the genome of silkworms to have the spider silk gene. They used CRISPR/Cas9. The result was satisfying. The edited silkworms produced 40-50% higher mechanical properties than the original silkworm silk. They are easy to farm, they produce large proteins, and they spin their own silk. There’s really nothing to worry about.
We all know the difficulty of farming spiders and how other organisms are able to be the media of making synthetic spider silk, but still, we will not be satisfied until the spider silk really comes out of the spiders. It would be the ultimate goal for both scientists and industry. There are other genome editing tools as advanced as CRISPR, such as TALEN and Sherlock, which could later gene-edit the spiders to prevent cannibalism or produce more silk. There are different types of silk that spiders can make and each has their own use such as:
- Dragline silk: This fiber is used as the outer rim of the web. It is tough and strong as steel.
- Tubiliform silk: This fiber is used for protecting egg sacs. Its nature is very stiff.
- Capture-spiral silk: This fiber is extremely sticky and stretchy by nature, and it is used for the capturing lines of the web.
- Minor-Ampullate silk: This fiber is used for web construction purposes.
- Aciniform silk: This fiber is used to wrap the captured prey. This is three times tougher than the dragline silk. (source: fiber2fashion)
So, looking at the different uses and strong points of each silk, genome-editing tools could also help program the spiders to create a specific type of silk that we desire so they won’t bother making the other type. Capture-spiral silk sounds like a perfect fit to make a super-duper strong adhesive glue, or aciniform, which is three times tougher than dragline silk, could be used for elevator cables. If that’s not enough, genome editing tools could also enhance the quality of the spider silk to be higher as different spiders produce different qualities of silk. For example, the Darwin’s Bank spider has the highest performance of silk, while Nephila spiders create golden orb webs in a lower quality. Genome editing could help combine these interesting characteristics. A little snip here and there, et voila!
The technical fibers market is always expected to grow and improve due to extensive use from textile to aerospace industries. According to Kraig Biocraft Laboratories, the market demand for technical fibers has a rapid growth. In 2012, the global market for technical fibers reached approximately $133 billion. The demand for technical fibers is expected to reach $160 billion in 2018. For raw silk fibers, the market is sitting at $5 billion. Knowing how powerful spider silk can be, it is already a promising multi-billion dollar market.
Big names in fashion industries have also set their sights on spider silk’s use for clothing advancement. The North Face already teamed up with Spiber, a Japanese-based company which makes synthetic spider silk fibers, to make Moon Parka whose high-quality material is meant for the most extreme arctic conditions. Although not already mass-produced, this wear piece is a step forward to making an outer jacket more protective from any harsh weather condition.
As mentioned earlier, AMSilk has done a lot in the skincare department. They’ve also worked together with Adidas to make The Future Biocraft, running shoes made from 100% biodegradable fabric. This fabric is very strong and lightweight at the same time. What’s most special about these shoes is that they won’t sink once you add a special enzyme to it. So, once this pair of shoes gets worn out, you can easily make it sink and no environmental damage is done. These pro-environmental shoes are just still a prototype, but take this as a sign to show the future where the fashion industry can go.
Nephila Clavipes is a type of spider that produces golden orb webs. You heard it right. Back in 2012, a golden silk cape made from 1.2m Nephila Clavipes took 8 years to create. The golden color of the cape naturally came 100% from the silk, making it more precious than any other silk ever. This cape was only displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Imagine how genome editing could reduce the years and efforts required to make golden orb web clothing more available. The fashion world must stay in tune for these advancements.
As spider silk is predicted to be the most-advanced fibers in the future, what are the other wonders you can make with Spider Silk? It goes way beyond clothing. Here are some of the things that we can do with it.
Protective clothing & Military Uniform Advancement
There’s more than just a neck tie. With the existing popularity of silk, when you create a business of these super spider silks, you can make super clothes. Not ones with superhero’s power, of course, but the soon to be super-tough silk can protect you from the rain, UV rays, and also bullets. It doesn’t stop there. Scientists in Utah State University are also working on lighter and melt-resistant uniforms. This very promising solution for the troops is so welcomed by the U.S Army that they granted $1 million for the R&D of this project.
So, imagine being a pioneer in making anti-wet clothing and superhero-like military uniforms, doesn’t it sound like a great deal?
Beyond uses on Earth, spider silk can be a valuable material for spacesuits. As astronauts need to be protected from any damage while out in the space, spacesuits always need the most-advanced material technology. The soon to-be super tough silk is an open gate to getting the best of this business opportunity.
Safer material for airbags
More than just a piece of clothing, spider silk can also be made into an airbag. Not only will it replace the material of airbags, but it will literally cover your body entirely — just like when Spiderman captures his enemy — protecting your body from any damage that could happen in a car crash. As spider silk is much softer and lighter than the current airbags, it makes a perfect and safer material in the future. Imagine, if later on, airbags will not only come in cars but also motorcycles. Even though there are already body protectors, imagine pushing a button and the spider silk airbag comes out and wraps you entirely. Imagine how many lives could be saved during bad accidents.
Stronger artificial skin, self-healing bandages and thinner surgical sutures
Now on to medical uses. Spider silk was used a long time ago for covering wounds. Spider silk would be a great material to be artificial skin for burn victims. Spider silk is stronger and biodegradable as compared to current artificial skin. Scientists in Hannover Medical School, Germany did an experiment using silk from a golden orb web. They seeded the mesh with skin-building cells and nutrients, the result of which you can see here. Other than artificial skin, spider silk is said to be great for surgical sutures. The silkworm silk is already the thread that surgeons use. Spider silk is thinner and stronger; thus, it works great in any kind of surgery. Especially for delicate surgeries like nerve and eye surgery. What about for a simple skin wound? Can spider silk turn into a super bandage that could even regenerate skin cells and deliver drugs to your skin? The great news is, scientists from University of Nottingham has already been working on that.
It’s always great to hear about more advancements in the medical world. Spider silk sounds amazingly like a perfect material for even basic first-aid tools such as bandages. Surely, spider silk will be applicable to other medical materials as well.
Advanced skincare ingredients
For those of you who desire silky-feeling skin, you may want to start looking out for skincare products that actually have spider silk formulation in it. The German firm, AMSilk, makes this formulation that has been market tested and approved. Spider silk comes in powder, microbeads, and hydrogel forms which will provide your skin with smoothness and moisture, leaving skin feeling silky and softer. These are common things that some people choose to get surgery or special treatments for, which doesn’t cost little. If you could make a product that would deliver those things mentioned above, with more affordable prices, you could expect a satisfying revenue after launching.
Fantastically, spider silk can also save the environment because of its biodegradability. With spider silk, we can make biodegradable bottles. There are countries whose consumption of water bottles reaches in the billions such as China and Indonesia. So, biodegradable bottles would be very welcome for not only water, but also for other drinks. It will be a great business as the consumption of plastic-bottled drinks is fast moving.
One very easy step to take to live a green life is to reduce your plastic waste. One day, hopefully soon enough, we won’t have to worry about plastic use anymore.
This is just a short list of what spider silk can be developed into. As technology advances every year, there could be many more developments, such as waterproof clothing (so we don’t bother when we forget to bring our umbrellas or raincoats), dirt-free shoes, or even space elevators. More developments may not have crossed our minds now but could happen with the continued extensive research and development of spider silk.
Humans have been fascinated by the wonders of spider silk for ages and yet the history of humans exploring spider silk has not been so wonderful as we have always faced the same problem. Spider silk is already predicted to be the future of fibers. From automotive and textile use to aerospace utilizations, spider silk could not be more appealing for its broad uses. Big names have got their eye on its development, and surely more and more companies will as well. Before there are too many demands, CRISPR technology is the perfect solution for the number one difficulty people have in starting this business: farming spiders. It’s just an entrance to more exploration and development of spider silk. Both markets of silk and technical fibers are promising already. As we all will look for more advancement in fashion and infrastructure, creating this business means you’re taking your part in making your life more advanced with the wonder material of spider silk.
Image from flickr by Amanda Slater