A recent discovery by researchers in molecular biology at the University of Wyoming, USA, brings scientists closer to being able to mass produce spider silk for commercial use.
The key in being able to use spider silk in medical and other applications is figuring out how to mass manufacture it in large enough quantities to make it commercially feasible. For that, researchers needed to determine its genetic makeup.
Spider silk contains a complex sugary polymer molecule called a glycoprotein. Researchers have now discovered that glycoprotein is made up of two different proteins with 110 amino acids each that are encoded by genes on opposite strands of the same DNA sequence. By cloning and replicating these genes they may be able to successfully create biocompatible glues bringing them closer to the possibility of commercial production.
Spider silk, the sticky glue like substance that spiders use to capture insects is one of the strongest known natural substances. It is a super strong natural fiber, resistant to climate changes, bacteria, fungal growth and enzymes.
Medical uses include using spider silk for stitching up wounds and for surgeries where very fine sutures are needed, such as for nerves and the eyes, possibly without leaving a scar. It holds great potential to be used as a substitute for sutures in tendon and ligament wounds, or with artificial prostheses, as well as producing surgical adhesives. Other researchers are using spider fibers to create scaffolding for regenerating ligaments or tendons, one of the most common knee injuries.
Currently, spider silk has been produced in alfalfa and the silk proteins in goat’s milk. Scientists are able to generate proteins outside spiders by inserting specific spider silk genes into target cells in the goat.
The protein that is produced in the milk can then be extracted and spun into fibers. Nexia Biotechnologies Inc. in Canada is a leader in the field with a product called BioSteel.