In a breakthrough that may at first glance seem like science fiction, researchers have created what could be called a ‘spider-worm.’
Scientists at the University of Wyoming have made hybrid silkworms that have been genetically altered to produce super-strength silk that is highly elastic with qualities like that of the valuable spider silk.
Compared by weight, spider silk is stronger than steel, which is why it is used to make sutures, artificial limbs and even parachutes, according to researchers from the University of Wyoming.
Scientists have been struggling to reproduce such silk for decades and many attempts were unsuccessful. However, at the start of the millennium researchers were able to genetically alter goats to produce “silk milk” that can be used to produce Biosteel, a material that is used in a variety of medical treatments like artificial tendons, ligaments, limbs and even sutures for used in eye surgery.
The option of farming spiders for commercial production for silk is impractical because spiders produce very little silk at a slow rate and because they have a tendency to eat each other, the researchers said. The process would be extremely costly.
However, the mutated silkworms are easy to farm and they also produce large amounts of silk.
"Our hope was that by embedding spider-silk protein [gene] sequences within silkworm silk [gene] sequences, we could get those proteins to co-assemble ... into composite fibers, and that is what happened," Professor Don Jarvis, a molecular biologist at UW in Laramie, told reporters at National Geographic News.
Researchers have spent more than 10 years in developing a silkworm with “transgenics capabilities” and the discovery is considered an important breakthrough in the long search for silk with such mechanical properties.
The study will be published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences publication.