In a breakthrough that could revolutionize the textile industry, scientists have successfully engineered silkworms using CRISPR technology to produce pure spider silk for the first time. This development could pave the way for mass production of spider silk, a material renowned for its strength, flexibility, and lightweight properties. The potential applications are vast, ranging from surgical thread to bulletproof vests, offering a scalable and potentially more eco-friendly alternative to synthetic fibres.
Spider silk, understandably, has been a material of interest for many years due to its unique properties and potential to serve as a greener alternative to synthetic fibres, which are derived from fossil fuels and contribute to microplastic pollution. However, the practicality of farming silk directly from spiders has been a significant hurdle, given their cannibalistic tendencies and the minuscule amount of silk they produce. Efforts to genetically engineer silkworms to produce spider silk have been ongoing, but until now, the silk produced by these modified silkworms contained less than 36 per cent spider silk.
Revolutionary Use of CRISPR: Genetically Engineered Silkworms Produce 100% Spider Silk
In a groundbreaking development, scientists have successfully used CRISPR technology to genetically modify silkworms to produce pure spider silk. This development could pave the way for the large-scale production of spider silk, a material known for its strength, flexibility, and lightness, and potential applications in products ranging from surgical thread to bulletproof vests.
Spider Silk: A Sustainable Solution
Spider silk offers a potential greener alternative to synthetic fibres, which are derived from fossil fuels and contribute to environmental pollution through the release of harmful microplastics. However, the farming of silk from spiders has been a challenge due to their cannibalistic tendencies and limited silk production. One example highlighting the difficulties of spider silk production is a 4-square-metre spider silk shawl displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which required the silk of over 1 million golden orb-weaver spiders.
Previous Challenges and Breakthroughs in Spider Silk Production
Efforts have been made previously to genetically modify silkworms to produce spider silk, given that silkworms are easier to farm and produce larger quantities of fibre. However, these earlier attempts have yielded silk that comprised less than 36% spider silk. Junpeng Mi and his team at Donghua University in China have now used the sophisticated CRISPR technology to insert genes responsible for making spider silk proteins into silkworms.
A New Era of Spider Silk Production
The genetically modified silkworms developed by Mi’s team produced silk that was 100% spider silk. Tests revealed that the engineered silk could withstand a stretching force of 1299 megapascals without breaking, making it 1.3 times stronger than nylon. Moreover, its toughness, measured as the energy it could absorb under impact, was 319 megajoules per cubic metre, making it six times tougher than Kevlar.
Furthermore, the modified silkworms naturally applied a protective coating to the spider silk, making the fibres more durable than artificially created spider silk. This development, according to Mi, turns silkworms into an "all-in-one station for spider silk fibre production."
Implications and Applications
The breakthrough could lead to the inexpensive mass production of spider silk. The team has already experimented with using the spider silk as a suturing thread for stitching up incisions in rats, with results showing better healing compared to traditional nylon threads. This suggests potential applications in surgical suturing and potentially in the production of bulletproof vests.
This development represents a significant breakthrough in the field of genetic engineering and sustainable material production. It not only offers a solution to the previous challenges of spider silk production but also opens the door to potentially widespread applications of this strong, flexible, and lightweight material. However, the long-term implications and potential risks of this genetic modification remain to be studied. The application of CRISPR technology in this context demonstrates the potential of genetic engineering in addressing complex challenges across various fields.