Gene-edited silkworms spin out spider silk, could lead to mass production

There are few things as haunting as walking into a spider web. But the special silk behind these universally reviled arachnid nets shows huge promise for saving human lives, from battling cancer to making better hearing aids.

That’s because spider silk is strong, flexible, and lightweight. The problem is, spiders are extremely territorial and cannibalistic creatures, making spider silk hard to propagate.

But in a new study by researchers at the Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences, genetically engineered silkworms were shown to produce higher yields of spider silk (without carrying the risk of eating each other). By using the gene editing tool TALEN, researchers replaced part of the silkworm genome with that of the golden orb-web spider. A paper detailing the research, which may pave a path towards mass production, was published recently in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“This work provides a stable, cost-effective … system to produce spider silk in large-scale by using genetically engineered silkworms,” Anjiang Tan, a researcher at the Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences, told Digital Trends.

The recent study made two significant achievements, according to Tan. For one, the amount of spider silk found in the silkworms’ silk was significantly greater — 35.2 percent compared to the less than 5 percent achieved in previous studies. And the silkworms were able to directly spin out ready-to-use spider silk, a feature that Tan called “very cost-effective.”

As an added bonus, Tan said the gene-editing technique enables researchers to engineer silkworms that can excrete not only spider silk but “custom-designed silk or other proteins for different purposes in the future.” Silkworms have also been used to produce silk for thousands of years, giving future spider silk farmers a much more manageable animal to rear.

Spider silk has been gaining a lot of attention over the past few years, grabbing headlines for its promise as a material of the future.

In June, researchers from the University of Geneva in Switzerland showed how microcapsules made from artificial spider silk could be used to deliver cancer-battling vaccines directly to the immune system. A year earlier, researches at MedUni Vienna and Vienna General Hospital in Austria demonstrated that super strong spider silk from the golden orb-weaver spider could be used to repair severe nerve damage. That same month, a team from the University of Cambridge even showed how artificial silk could someday be used to make bulletproof vests more protective.

The recent study provides a potential route toward mass production of spider silk that would help make the promising material more accessible. Moving forward, Tan and his team want to try out different combinations of spider silk genes to increase efficiency and productivity, while unlocking the spider gene sequence to better understand what protein structures give this material its outstanding properties.

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