Japanese researchers succeeded in producing Spider silk

Spider silk
Nephila spider (left) and silk fibers produced by photosynthetic bacteria (upper/lower right). Photo: RIKEN

Japanese researchers say they have succeeded in producing Spider silk through the thin threads, or draglines, by using photosynthetic bacteria that could be upscaled for factory production with major implications for the apparel industry.

Spider silk has a lot going for it. It’s strong, very light, biodegradable and biocompatible, and has the potential to be used in everything from tear-resistant clothing to aerospace components.

The one downside is that it tends to be in short supply because only spiders produce it, and they’re slow. But that might be about to change.

In a new study published in Communications Biology, a research team led by Keiji Numata at the RIKEN Center for Sustainable Resource Science (CSRS) reported that they succeeded in producing the spider silk using photosynthetic bacteria. This study could open a new era in which photosynthetic bio-factories stably output the bulk of spider silk.

Spiders produce amazingly strong and lightweight threads called draglines that are made from silk proteins. Although they can be used to manufacture a number of useful materials, getting enough of the protein is difficult because only a small amount can be produced by each tiny spider. In addition to being tough and lightweight, silks derived from arthropod species are biodegradable and biocompatible. In particular, spider silk is ultra-lightweight and is as tough as steel.

Spider silk has the potential to be used in the manufacture of high-performance and durable materials such as tear-resistant clothing, automobile parts, and aerospace components,” explains Choon Pin Foong, who conducted this study. “Its biocompatibility makes it safe for use in biomedical applications such as drug delivery systems, implant devices, and scaffolds for tissue engineering.” Because only a trace amount can be obtained from one spider, and because breeding large numbers of spiders is difficult, attempts have been made to produce artificial spider silk in a variety of species.

Further observations confirmed that the surface and internal structures of the fibres produced in the bacteria were very similar to those produced naturally by spiders.

“Our current study shows the initial proof of concept for producing spider silk in photosynthetic bacteria,” Numata says. “We are now working to mass produce spider-silk dragline proteins at higher molecular weights in our photosynthetic system.”

“We have already received many offers from the apparel sector,” explains lead researcher Keiji Numata. “If we can conquer this new and fast-developing field, I think we can help to expand possibilities within the textile industry.”


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