In a groundbreaking scientific breakthrough, researchers in China have successfully engineered silkworms to produce spider silk, a natural fiber known for its remarkable strength. This spider silk is a stunning six times tougher than Kevlar, a synthetic material commonly used in bulletproof vests, paving the way for a potential sustainable alternative to synthetic fibers.
Spider silk has long captivated material scientists due to its exceptional tensile strength surpassing nylon and toughness surpassing Kevlar. However, commercializing spider silk has proven challenging due to the intricate spinning mechanism, technical complexities, engineering hurdles, and the cannibalistic nature of spiders.
Lead author and PhD candidate Junpeng Mi stated, “Silkworm silk is presently the only animal silk fiber commercialized on a large scale, with well-established rearing techniques. Consequently, employing genetically modified silkworms to produce spider silk fiber enables low-cost, large-scale commercialization.”
The researchers achieved this breakthrough by integrating spider silk protein genes into the DNA of silkworms using CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology. This involved hundreds of thousands of microinjections into fertilized silkworm eggs. Further modifications were made to ensure proper interaction of spider silk proteins with proteins in the silkworm glands, allowing for the correct spinning of the fiber. The resulting silk fibers exhibited exceptional mechanical performance.
The implications of this research are profound, reaching far beyond the realm of materials science. The potential applications include smart materials for military and aerospace use, as well as biomedical engineering, where the silk could be utilized as surgical sutures, addressing a global demand exceeding 300 million procedures annually.
Looking ahead, future research will build upon these findings by developing genetically modified silkworms that can produce spider silk fibers using both natural and engineered amino acids. Junpeng Mi expressed optimism, stating, “The introduction of over one hundred engineered amino acids holds boundless potential for engineered spider silk fibers.”
This groundbreaking achievement opens doors to a future where sustainable, incredibly strong, and versatile fibers can be produced at a large scale, revolutionizing various industries and benefiting society as a whole.