For quite some time we’ve been hearing about the wondrous properties of spider silk, and how it is stronger than materials like steel and tougher than kevlar (the material used in bulletproof vests), but we’ve not yet seen it replace any of our current materials.
This is primarily because natural spider silk would not be easy to harvest from spiders, so synthetic spider silk was being developed. One method used genetic modification to replace the proteins in a goat that would be found in milk, with those that are used to form spider silk. This allowed the proteins to be separated from the milk and turned into the silk, with no other effects on the animal. Another inserted the relevant gene into the organism E. Coli (commonly known for being a cause of food poisoning) to produce the protein in a similar fashion. However, it has been difficult to make the proteins from these methods as good as the natural silk that spiders create.
Spider silk is, unlike steel and kevlar, a protein. It is primarily formed of repeating glycine and alanine blocks of amino acids. It has a wide range of potential applications, including a material for artificial tendons or to coat implants, due to the fact that it is not rejected by the body, as well as wound patches due to antibacterial properties that it exhibits. It has a good thermal conductivity, similar to that of copper, but with a much lower mass density, so it could be used in heat management.
The particular advancement in question, is that by AMSilk, who have successfully managed to create silk as good as that from a spider, using the E. Coli genetic engineering process. They initially plan to produce 4 different varieties of silk, but have already got different versions of E. Coli ready for 20 different variants. Outsourcing of production has already begun, and they say that the technology is scalable, meaning they can increase production as they acquire more funding and grow as a company, and a business. From a current investment of around $16 million, they are hoping to reach annual sales of over $10 million in the next few years, with plans to increase to $100 million in the future, once large scale production is under way. This is entirely plausible, since there is a lot of potential for this new material, and thus there could be a lot of demand, allowing AMSilk to establish itself as a leader in the sector for this new material. The other facilities that are aiming to join the market are currently securing partnership deals, and establishing manufacturing plants, so they are still a little behind in terms of bringing the material to a commercial market.
The first use that they have planned, is for skincare products and in shampoos, where the silk binds to keratin in the hair, making it feel softer and less damaged. In May, they intend to release a wound healing spray.
Other companies, such as those listed in the image above are looking into using goats, as mentioned earlier, or silkworms, amongst other techniques. The silkworms would be used in a similar fashion to their current farms for silk, with genetic modification allowing them to produce spider silk instead of their usual product. Using larger organisms to produce the silk may be harder to scale up, compared to using a microorganism such as E. Coli, so we shall see how these companies cope if and when they come to market.
Let me know how you feel about this new material, do you think has as much potential as it claims to? Leave your comments on this post or on my facebook page.
For more details, take a look at this article http://cen.acs.org/articles/92/i9/Spider-Silk-Poised-Commercial-Entry.html
or the AMSilk website http://www.amsilk.com/en/products/biosteel-spidersilk-fibers.html