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Bionic silkworms with spider genes spin fibers 6x tougher than Kevlar

Bionic silkworms
Image Source:Nenad Nedomacki@shutterstock

Buckle up, folks! We’re diving into a web of scientific wizardry that’s rewriting the story on textiles. Spider silk, known for its stretchiness, strength, and sheer toughness, has always been a hot pursuit for genetic engineers. But they’ve been chasing it like a cat after a laser pointer. Now, brace yourselves, because researchers have taken gene editing by storm, unleashing silkworms that can weave spider silk tougher than the stuff in bulletproof vests!

This breakthrough material, unveiled today in the journal Matter, is more than just a feather in the cap of science; it’s a game-changer. Justin Jones, the spider silk guru from Utah State University, is singing its praises, calling it a “really high-performance fiber.” And he’s not wrong. This stuff could revolutionize fuel-efficient planes, hardy-as-nails wound dressings, and razor-thin yet indestructible sutures for those delicate eye surgeries.

Silkworms have been humanity’s textile sidekicks for millennia, but let’s face it, their silk snaps like a twig. Meanwhile, spiders are silk maestros, but they’re about as cooperative as a house full of feuding siblings. Silkworms chill in cramped quarters, while spiders turn into gladiators. So, what’s the solution? Scientists have been playing mad scientist for years, trying to get silkworms to spin spider silk. But spider silk genes are like giants, and cramming them into other animals’ genomes? Well, that’s been trickier than juggling flaming torches.

But wait, there’s a twist in the tale! Junpeng Mi and his crew at Donghua University decided to think small—really small. They went for a pint-sized spider silk protein, the MiSp, hailing from an East Asian orb-weaving spider named Araneus ventricosus. They fired up the CRISPR machine and swapped the silkworms’ main silk gene with MiSp. But here’s the kicker: they kept some silkworm secrets in the MiSp mix to ensure the worm’s inner machinery could still play nice with the spider protein.

And what happened? Drumroll, please! These genetically modified silkworms started cranking out fibers that were Hulk-level strong and tough as nails. We’re talking almost as tough as the toughest spider silk out there, and six times tougher than that trusty old Kevlar!

Jones, always ready with a scientific eyebrow-raise, found it surprising that these MiSp-based fibers were as flexible as a yoga instructor. Normally, this protein makes fibers that are all about brute strength, not elasticity. But hey, it’s a silkworm world, and when you drop MiSp in there, it does a little dance.

Now, before we start ordering spider silk hoodies, Mi and his gang have a bit more work to do. They’re planning a little silkworm matchmaking with the commercial silk strains to make this miracle material on a grand scale. And the best part? These fibers are eco-friendly, so they might first find a home in the world of surgical sutures.

But hold your horses; there’s a hitch in this silky plan. Protecting intellectual property rights might be as tricky as teaching a cat to fetch. And will those inserted genes hang around as these silkworms get busy breeding? We’ll have to wait and see.

Mi’s not done yet, either. He’s got dreams of engineering silkworms to spin spider silk that’s even mightier and stretchier. He’s talking about cooking up silk proteins with nonnatural amino acids, which he says could open up a Pandora’s box of new possibilities. Maybe a silk that’s not only tougher than Kevlar but even stronger. Buckle up, folks, because the future of fabrics just got a whole lot more interesting!

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