By Roger Highfield
‘Spider-goats’ start work on wonder web
A HERD of goats containing spider genes is about to be milked for the ingredients of spider silk to mass-produce one of nature’s most sought-after materials.
Scientists have for the first time spun synthetic spider silk fibres with properties approaching the real thing, paving the way for their use in artificial tendons, medical sutures, biodegradable fishing lines, soft body armour and a host of other applications.
Webster and Peter, genetically altered goats unveiled today by the Canadian company Nexia, are the founders of a GM herd whose offspring will produce spider silk protein in their milk that can be collected, purified and spun into the fibres. Females will begin mass-producing spider milk in the second quarter of this year for a variety of military and industrial uses.
Spider silk has long been admired by material scientists for its unique combination of toughness, lightness and biodegradability. Dragline silk, which comprises the radiating spokes of a spider web, is stronger than the synthetic fibre Kevlar, stretches better than nylon and, weight for weight, is five times stronger than steel.
These incredible qualities are the product of 400 million years of evolution. Now spider yarn has been spun by the US Army and the company Nexia Biotechnologies of Montreal, marking a milestone in efforts to ape arachnids.
The work “opens up a lot of things on the practical level and on a research level,” said Dr Randy Lewis, a spider silk expert at the University of Wyoming, Laramie. Dr Jeffrey Turner, President of Nexia, said: “Mimicking spider silk properties has been the holy grail of material science and now we’ve been able to make useful fibres.”