For the first time, researchers have been able to obtain genetically modified silkworms to spin a sustainable alternative to synthetic fibres. It is possible that our future clothes will be made from this.
Many scientists have been calling for some time to eliminate synthetic clothing. Synthetic fibers can release harmful microplastics into the environment. Additionally, synthetic fibers are often made from fossil fuels, resulting in greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. However, finding alternatives based on natural materials is not easy and comes with its own challenges. But in a recent study, researchers took a big step forward. Because for the first time they have succeeded in making genetically modified silkworms spin spider silk.
Spider silk, also known as spider silk or spider web silk, is a natural fiber produced by spiders. They use this to build their webs, but also for other purposes, such as catching prey. Due to spider silk’s remarkable properties such as strength, elasticity and lightness, it has long been an area of interest for scientists and engineers seeking applications in industries as diverse as textiles, medical technology, aerospace and military applications. Therefore, spider silk is considered an attractive and sustainable alternative to synthetic fibres.
It is no coincidence that researchers are eagerly searching for ways to produce spider silk artificially. Why don’t scientists get spider silk directly from the spider? First, spiders produce little silk, and spiders are cannibals, making it difficult to group many spiders together. However, research is difficult. Processes previously developed to produce artificial spider silk had difficulties in applying a protective layer of glycoproteins and lipids to the fibres. This layer is necessary to make silk resistant to moisture and sunlight.
Silkworms may offer a solution to this problem. This is because they naturally cover their fibers with a similar protective layer. That’s why researchers decided to focus on this little creature in a new study. “Currently, silkworm silk is the only animal silk fiber that is produced on a large scale,” says researcher Junpeng Mei. The researcher wondered whether genetically modified silkworms were able to spin spider silk fibers. “This will be an affordable way to enable large-scale production and sales,” Mei said.
To produce spider silk from silkworms, Mei and his team inserted the genes responsible for spider silk proteins into the silkworm’s DNA. This allowed these genes to be expressed in the glands of the silkworm. To do this, they used a combination of CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology and hundreds of thousands of microinjections into fertilized silkworm eggs. Performing these microscopic injections was viewed as one of the most challenging aspects of research. But when Mei saw that the silkworm’s eyes glowed red under a fluorescent microscope—an indication that the gene editing was successful—he was thrilled. “I danced and ran to Professor Meng Qing’s office to share this with her,” Mei recalls. “I still remember that night clearly because the excitement kept me awake.”
In short, researchers have succeeded for the first time in getting silkworms to make spider silk. They produced a fiber that was at least six times stronger than the Kevlar used in bulletproof vests. Spider silk fibers can be used to make more comfortable clothing, but also to develop innovative body armour. Moreover, they may also be useful in medicine. “These types of fibers could serve as material for surgical sutures,” May suggests. “More than 300 million stitches are performed worldwide each year.”
The study results reveal a new technology that could be used as an environmentally responsible alternative to synthetic commercial fibers such as nylon. This means you may finally be able to say goodbye to the synthetic clothes currently hanging in your closet. Because maybe spider silk clothing is the future. “We are confident of the possibility of large-scale commercial production in the near future,” concludes Mei.
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