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Published on October 1st, 2010 | by Tina Casey


Bionic Silkworms Can Make Super Strong Spider Silk

October 1st, 2010 by  

researchers have bioengineered silkworms to make spider silkBioengineered silkworms may help free the world from its dependence on petrochemicals, by providing a greener way to produce fabrics that are as strong as spider silk. A research team has successfully altered silkworms to produce a substance that has the distinct physical characteristics of spider silk, namely its extraordinarily high tensile strength and elasticity. If the new silkworms can be grown commercially, it raises the potential for manufacturing a wide range of fabric-based products that use less feedstocks derived from petroleum and other toxic chemicals.

How to Build a Better Silkworm

The research team is from the University of Notre Dame, the University of Wyoming, and Kraig Biocraft Laboratories, Inc. The scientists used recombinent DNA techniques to insert genetic material from spiders into silkworms. The result was a combination of worm and spider silk. Though not quite as strong as native spider silk, the new product is significantly stronger and more elastic than normal silk.

Many Uses for Super Strong Silk

Suturing and bandaging are two current medical uses for normal silk that could be replaced with a stronger product. Beyond that biomedical uses, the researchers envision super strong silk replacing petrochemical based fibers in everything from air bags and athletic clothing to canopies and other building elements based on fabric. Tents, sails, kites, and even bullet proof vests are just a few of the other possibilities.

Earth to Petrochemicals: Buh-Bye

Bioengineered silk worms are just one of the growing number of alternatives to petrochemicals and other toxic substances that are typically used in synthetic products. The movement has a name – “green chemistry” -and it takes many forms, such as using kinetic energy as a non-toxic disinfectant instead of chlorine, or eliminating the use of the greenhouse gas hexane in cooking oil production (right, who knew?) by subbing in reclaimed carbon dioxide to separate the oil from crushed seeds.

Image: Spider web by foxypar4 on flickr.com. 

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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