A Canadian biotechnology company has developed a method of creating artificial spider silk by genetically modifying mammalian cells. Spider silk is incredibly strong and therefore has many potential applications in industry, science and medicine. But, unlike silkworms, spiders cannot be farmed.
The silk, known as 'dragline', is the strongest that spiders spin. It is made up of two proteins, but attempts to decode the genes that manufacture them have proved unsuccessful. The scientists attribute this to the fact the proteins are so large. However, hamster and cow cells are capable of producing and releasing high quantities of protein, which means they can be used to produce the silk in a laboratory.
The scientists, from Nexia Biotechnology in Quebec, have now produced spider silk by inserting the silk-producing gene from the spiders into cow and hamster cells. When a sample of the silk proteins had been made and collected, they were sent to a US army microbiologist who had developed a 'spinning' technique. The proteins were squeezed through a tiny tube, which forced them to form a thin fibre, said to be similar to spider silk but not yet as strong. In the future, Nexia hopes to develop the technique by inserting the silk genes into plants, which would be a far cheaper method.