Researchers at University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., genetically altered silkworms so they spin silk stronger than Kevlar,
Malcolm Fraser, a University of Notre biologist, announced at a press conference that they have successfully developed silkworms that produce artificial spider silk.
"The generation of silk fibers having the properties of spider silks has been one of the important goals in materials science, " he said.
He said the the spider silk is so strong that it can be used to make a textile stronger than Kevlar.
Fraser teamed up with researchers Randy Lewis, a biochemist who studies spider silk and Don Jarvis, a molecular geneticist who specializes in insect protein production, both from with University of Wyoming in Laramie, Wyo., to insert specific DNAs taken from spiders to genetically engineer silkworms.
Cheryl Hayashi, professor of biology at the University of California, Riverside, said the research "is truly exciting and groundbreaking. It is important both for mass producing silk and also for dissecting the intricacies of the biology encompassing silk production."
Hayashi studies the protein sequences in different types of spider silks and the functional properties of the fibers.
Silk produced from spiders is stronger, more flexible and tougher than fibers naturally spun from silkworms, Fraser said in an interview on Thursday.
"This research represents a significant breakthrough in the development of superior silk fibers for both medical and non-medical applications, " Fraser told the press conference.
The artificial spider silk is a combination of spider and silkworm fibers and is approaching the properties of naturally occurring spider silk. Fraser said.
The artificial spider fibers can be used as fine suture materials, improved wound healing bandages, or natural scaffolds for tendon and ligament repair or replacement, researchers said.
The fibers may also be used in bulletproof vests, strong and lightweight structural fabrics, a new generation athletic clothing and improved automobile airbags the press release stated.
This research provides a way that artificial spider silk can be produced on a commercial scale. According to the press release, Kraig Biocraft Inc in Lansing, Mich., joined with Fraser to use his patented genetic engineering tool call piggyBac, which is a piece of DNA that can insert itself into the genetic material of a cell.
"Several years ago, we discovered that the technique could be useful for genetic engineering of the silkworm, and the possibilities for using this commercial protein production platform began to become apparent, " Fraser said."We've also made strides in improving the process of genetic engineering of these animals so that the development of additional transgenics is facilitated."
Todd Blackledge, a University of Akron biologist who studies the biomechanical properties of silk threads, said the research is exciting, but he doesn't know enough about their procedures to say whether the research is revolutionary.
He said a number of labs have been trying to find a way to produce spider silk on a large scale. Future experiment could show the relationship between genes and different types of silk, he said.
"We can't replicate spinning in the lab as well as silkworms, " Blackledge said.
Fraser said the next step in their research is to improve properties of the silk fibers.
"We are going to research other spider silks and bring other genetic sequences into our process and hope to custom design fibers that vary in strength and flexibility, " he said.