Spiderworms, Exploring Vents, Clues to deafness and Bulking up!

Silkworms producing spider silk, new species discovered at hydrothermal vents in Antarctica, a gene providing new insight to deafness and the science behind bulking up this new...
06 January 2012

Interview with 

Randy Lewis, Utah State University; Alex Rogers, University of Oxford; David Ornitz, University of Washington; Athanassia Soritopoulos, INSERM


Spidersilk from Silkworms

Silkworms have been genetically engineered to spin spider silk proteins, producing a tougher, more elastic silk material.

Farming of spiders for their silk production is challenging due to small production levels and cannibalism within populations.  Publishing in the journal


PNAS, Randy Lewis and colleagues from the Utah State University overcame this problem by creating transgenic silk worms containing spider genes for silk elasticity and tensile strength resulting in a composite of worm and spider silk produced in large quantities.

Randy -   Certainly, one area that we're very interested in is artificial ligaments and artificial tendons for ligament and tendon repair.  We've got collaborators who are interested in using it for helping them build a very strong bone matrix, or very fine sutures.  Beyond the biomedical, there's interest in things like parachutes.  We can also match different applications.  So for a tendon, you want something that's very strong and not very elastic.  For a ligament, you want something that's strong and very elastic.  So, we'll be custom designing our genes and the silkworms to make a specific silk that has a very specific application.


New Species at Antarctic Vents

Unique communities of marine species have been found on the Antarctic sea floor, living in hydrothermal vents off the coast of the East Scotia ridge in the Southern Ocean.

Using remotely operated vehicles, Alex Rogers' team from the University of Oxford discovered new species of yeti crab, stalked barnacles and seven-armed starfish, unseen anywhere else in the world, whilst animals such as tube worms and vent crabs, commonly associated with hydrothermal vents, were nowhere to be seen.

The team suggest the southern ocean may act as a barrier, resulting in a more diverse vent ecosystem globally than previously thought.

Alex -   The southern ocean may act as a gateway for the dispersal of some of these animals from one ocean to another, but that very harsh environmental condition of the southern ocean probably means it acts as a barrier for the dispersal of other groups.  The East Scotia region is somewhere between 10 and 20 million years old, so it would seem that these animals may have become isolated on the ridge shortly after it was formed.  The distribution of vent animals and the evolution of hydrothermal vent faunas around the globe is much more complicated than we previously suspected.


New gene target identified for deafness

A new gene identified in mouse models could provide insight into the causes of human deafness.

David Ornitz and colleagues from the Washington University school of medicine in St Louis found that the gene,


named FGF20, which codes for a family of proteins called fibroblast growth factors, was crucial for the formation of outer hair cells - sensory cells needed to amplify sound in the inner ear.

The gene has previously been linked with inherited deafness in humans and could lead to treatments for hearing loss.

David -   FGF20 is a critical signal for the formation of outer hair cells and might be a deafness related gene in humans and it is our hope that FGF20 may be useful to either protect or help to regenerate sensory hair cells that have been damaged by noise, by drugs, or through the ageing process.


The Science behind Bulking Up

And finally, as many of us start the new year with a resolution to workout, the key factors needed for our muscles to grow and bulk up during a workout have been discovered by scientists at the Inserm institute in France.

Working with mice,  Athanassia Sotirorpoulos identified the need for serum response factor, or SRF, in working muscle fibres to signal the proliferation of satellite stem cells found within muscle which then grow and fuse to existing muscle fibres resulting in growth.

Muscle was shown not to grow in mice lacking the SRF gene.

Athanassia -   The implication is that, for example, during ageing, there is a muscle atrophy that is called Sarcopenia or when you are immobilised at bed, you get very important muscle atrophy.  So, if we can identify all the genes that are really involved in controlling muscle growth then we can use those genes to have less wasting during ageing or during your bed resting.

The work was published in the current edition of the journal Cell Metabolism.



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