Part of the show The Science of Light
Scientists in Israel have artificially produced a form of spider silk which could be used commercially to make protective clothes such as bullet-proof vests, surgical thread, optical fibres and even fishing rods. Together with researchers from Oxford and Munich, the Jerusalem-based scientists isolated the genes that spiders use to make dragline silk, a form of web which is known for its strength and elasticity; the silk is 6 times stronger than similarly-sized steel or nylon fibres. Dr. Uri Gat, one of the scientists behind the discovery, joins us from his lab in Jerusalem to explain how it works :
Chris - What are the commercial uses of spider silk?
Uri - Spider silk can be made into many useful products. These include stronger and lighter bullet-proof vests; reinforced fishing lines; digestible sutures for surgery; and maybe even new textiles! The only problem with spider silk clothes is that washing them will cause dramatic shrinkage, meaning you'd need new clothes every two days! As spider silk is a natural material, you don't even have to throw it away - you could eat it like spiders do !
Chris - Seeing as spider silk has so many useful applications, why has it taken so long to make it ?
Uri - Artificial spider silk has been made before now by creating it in bacteria. However, the quality was poor and the fibres were not ideal. We have been making spider silk in insect cell cultures. Spider silk genes were put into a virus, which was then used to infect insect cells. This forced the cells to produce spider silk. The most amazing part of this was that the silk proteins arranged themselves into fibres automatically inside the cells. It was incredible to watch.
Chris - How do you get the silk out of the cells, and how is this purified to make it suitable for commercial use?
Uri - Getting the silk out of the cells is actually quite easy. Spider silk is extremely chemically resistant, so when we destroy the cells with detergent, the silk is the only thing left. As to making it suitable for commercial use, we still need to develop a suitable method. Our discovery is the first step, and there are more to go before spider silk can be used on a large scale.