Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Spider Businessman

Investors, pay attention! And the next big wave of research will be from the field of…

Unless the producers of the next Spider-Man flick are committing some deranged (yet potentially remunerative and rewarding) publicity scheme, there is something deliciously arthropodial in the air:

The Max Planck Institute in Germany has incorporated metal into the proteins of a spider’s silk, strengthening it further. The problem is getting enough spider silk to efficiently commercialize the process, so researchers are now working to incorporate metals into silkworms’ product.

Using a golden orb-weaver (one of the more popular research spiders due to its tough and elastic silk), researchers at the University of Akron, in Ohio, have controlled massed bundles of spider strands through humidity. With their method, Akron scientists have lifted and lowered a 100-milligram weight with a strand only five microns thick.

In theory, they say, it’s possible to lift tons. The problem is getting enough spider silk.

“Spider silk is one of the strongest and most resilient fibers known to mankind,” says analyst Joseph Noel of Emerging Growth Research of San Francisco. “It is significantly stronger than steel on a pound for pound basis... Spider silk… has no comparison relative to its ability to absorb energy before breakage occurs.”

Noel notes, “Kevlar pales in comparison.”

A Spider silk “super-fiber” would be aimed at the $90bn/year global technical textiles market.

Year of the Spider
It is impossible to farm or ranch spiders: they maintain territorial boundaries brutally, and will become cannibalistic in close quarters. But silkworms? They are hardly so individualistic. And centuries of controlled breeding have made them about 40% silk glands.

Researchers from the Lansing, Michigan-based Kraig Biocraft Laboratories (KBL), in cooperation with the University of Norte Dame and the University of Wyoming, are working on transplanting/crossing the DNA from the silk glands of spiders to the silk glands of silkworms to produce high-performance polymers, and Noel feels the company is “on the verge of a major breakthrough.”

One segment of the high-performance fibers market that KBL has its sights on is aramid fibers, where DuPont’s Kevlar rules the roost, with an estimated $5bn/year in sales.

Future markets
Spider specialist Sarah Goodacre of the University of Nottingham, feels that the focus should move from the orb-weaver spider to other varieties. Her preference is the tarantula: "Tarantula silk really is one of the unexplored areas,” she told the BBC. “We don't know what it is made of or how useful it might be to us.”

Who knows? In a few months, I may be writing an article on which spider will win the biochemical spider silk research wars: The golden orb weaver, or the infamous tarantula?

Just as long as I get one of the first bulletproof spider silk shirts, either way, I’ll be happy.

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