November 5, 2017
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Synthesized spider silk

Spider silk has long fascinated scientists due to its incredible strength and formation process. Stronger than steel by weight and more durable than Kevlar, the material also has amazing elasticity. Moreover, it is created biochemically, as opposed to requiring the addition of heat. Nexia Biotechnologies developed an artificial spider silk in the late 1990s called BioSteel, which involved growing spider silk protein in transgenic goat milk. The company has since folded; however, Japan-based Spiber has continued the effort to synthesize fibroin, which is the protein that imparts dragline silk with its compelling characteristics.

By decoding the fibroin-producing gene, Spiber has avoided using goat milk—instead producing the protein with a marriage of bioengineered bacteria and recombinant DNA. The company processes the protein as a dry powder from which threads are manufactured by extruding the powder through thin, hollow needles. Spiber calls this fiber Qmonos, based on kumonosu, the Japanese word for spiderweb.

In late 2015, Spiber announced a collaboration with the North Face to produce a jacket for extreme environments, like the South Pole. Claimed to be the first article of clothing made from synthetic proteins, the so-called Moon Parka features an outer shell made from woven Qmonos, which is dyed with a soft golden hue reminiscent of the natural silk color of the golden orb spider. This shell not only outperforms conventional petroleum-derived fibers, but also is entirely biodegradable.

Contact: Spiber Inc., Tsuruoka, Japan.

For more information, see Transmaterial Next: A Catalog of Materials that Redefine Our Future