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How Modified Worms and Goats Can Mass-Produce Nature's Toughest Fiber

• Rebecca Boyle via
Mutant silkworms can produce miles of super-strong silk, in a new breakthrough that could lead to mass production of tough, flexible spider-silk material. Thanks to the efforts of these genetically modified spider-worms, along with spidergoats and spider-alfalfa, spider clothes may soon be upon us.

Randy Lewis, a molecular biologist at the University of Wyoming, has been milking his spidergoats for a couple years now, and he’s been trying to improve yields of genetically engineered spider-silk alfalfa. He’s researching improved synthetic spider silk genes, and he hopes to start growing spider cotton in the near future. With his latest research, spider fabrics might only be a year away.

Last week, Lewis and Malcolm Fraser at the University of Notre Dame announced they bred silkworms that had been genetically engineered to produce spider silk.

“From our perspective, there are huge advantages to the fact that the fiber is already spun,” Lewis said. “You don’t have to purify the protein, you don’t have to take it and spin fibers.”

Lewis said the study, which has not yet been published, proves the concept of engineering and breeding transgenic silkworms.

“The real question is going to be, can we make the necessary improvements in the mechanical properties of the silkworm silk by incorporating the spider silk in it? If we can do that, then obviously it makes a whole lot of things possible in terms of the amount of material you can make.”

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