Spinning a New Web
Using spider silk for clothing may not seem to be an attractive proposition for common people, but spider silk is the toughest natural fibre, which is also non-toxic and antibacterial. Therefore, scientists the world over want to tap into this resource. Spider silk-like materials can potentially be used in making military and sports clothing and equipment, smash-resistant films and casings, durable lightweight apparel and biomedical materials. What is more, Dr. Sean Blamires from the Evolution and Ecology Research Centre, UNSW Science, Australia, believes dresses made of spider silk may be available for common people in future. Though the easiest way to get spider silk appears to be from the web itself, this is not feasible since spiders have a tendency to cannibalise each other. Therefore, any successful attempt to create spider silk would require use of cutting edge genetic and spinning technologies. And this is what Blamires, along with his team, aspires to achieve. He has undertaken an international study funded by the PLuS Alliance to examine whether spider silk can be replicated. In an email interview with Savita Verma, Blamires elaborates on the project, success achieved so far, and the challenges ahead.
A synthetic spider silk would be of most benefit in applications where its performance can come to the fore. Antiballistic/ anti-smash clothing, coatings or surfaces is an earmarked application. Other applications could take advantage of its anti-bacterial and biocompatibility properties. These might include medical devices like bandages, surgical (internal or external) sutures and connectors. Spider silk is also conductive and contractile when wet, so could serve as nerve or muscle transplants, or as lightweight and durable conductive materials in electronics.
The only applications of spider silks from webs I know of are historical(Roman, I think) and reported for some indigenous cultures. I have heard of Australian aboriginals using spider webs as nets and Pacific Islander people creating a thing called a “smothering hood” to suffocate widowed women within (for memory these are from the book Gossamer Days by Elaine Morgan). If you are asking about silk that has been forcibly reeled straight from the spider, a golden coloured shroud and a gown was woven using over a million Madagascar golden orb weaving spiders. They took something like four years to put it together. The gown is on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum and the shroud is in the American Museum of Natural History.
It is the extreme toughness of spider silk that makes it (or perhaps a fibre mimicking its properties) attractive for such applications. A spider silk-like material would perform better than Kevlar or Twaron-based clothing and equipment at protecting terrestrial defence personnel in the field, as wearing and/or carrying the latter is extremely heavy, burdensome, and often uncomfortable. Spider silk has all the performance capabilities of Kevlar/Twaron but is light weight and, exceptionally smooth, and highly comfortable.
One of the goals of the Spider Silk Research Lab (SSRL) is to find, promote, and educate about all kinds of applications of spider silk and other natural materials. To this end, I promote the value and amazing properties of spider silk with the expectation that labs with previously unthought of applications might come forward. The next big application therefore might be one we cannot foresee.
While I don’t know what everyone is doing around the world, to the best of my knowledge there are just a few labs currently working on this, but the effort being put in by each of them is immense.
I am, by background, an ecologist. I did my PhD on the ecology of the orb weaving spiders in the grounds of the University of Sydney. It struck me during this study that spiders use and entirely depend on a material that they manufacture from their food and water, and that this material is superior than anything that human engineering can come up with. Not to mention the structural engineering feat of its web (how it maximises materials yet is almost transparent to inset prey) and the reversibly adhesive water-based glue it uses to capture and hold on to insects in full flight. After my PhD, I decided I wanted to focus on spider silks and was fortunate enough to do a post-doctorate at Tunghai University in Taiwan, where I was given the freedom to explore cross disciplinary methods, like mechanical and molecular characterisations usingtensile machines and synchrotron radiation, to study spider silks in detail across hierarchical levels.
The project for which we have a PLuS Alliance seed grant will be a collaboration between three of us (myself, Dr. Aditya Rawal and Associate Professor Chris Marquis) at the University of New South Wales, Jeffery Yarger, who heads the NMR Facility at Arizona State University, and Rivka Isaacson, a chemical biologist at King’s College, London. The funding is around $50,000 for one year. It is modest, but it will help to rapidly advance our recombinant silk production programme and spin and test the fibres produced by it.
The SSRL collaborates with many other teams from around the world and these have contributed, and will continue to contribute, to this andother programmes. I would like to make mention of some significant ones: Prof I-Min Tso and Dr. Dakota Piorkowski from my former lab at Tunghai University, Taiwan, are still actively associated with many of the SSRLs research and business activities, including the establishment of our silk supply chain.
The Spider Silk Research Lab was a name I gave my lab (it was more an unused bench space within what is called the “Sex Lab” at UNSW, run by Prof Rob Brookes) when I moved to UNSW from Tunghai University in 2014. I employed an IT designer to build me a website in 2015, within which she designed what Ithought was a cool logo. When my postdoctorate at UNSW finished in 2018, I registered the lab as a business, with the intention of it becoming profitable enough to employ me full-time. It isn’t there yet and I teach at a high school by day and run the lab in my spare time. I have kept however my lab and office space at UNSW where I have an honorary appointment. This has allowed the lab’s activities to keep moving in the right direction. However, with a silk supply chain initiated, a good, solid team of new and long-term partners and collaborators, some amazingly great students, momentum building on the synthetic silk production and application, and now some seed funding, things are looking very positive.
Yes. Promoting and collaborating on all kinds of spider silk research projects is a core activity of the lab including this one.
The grant is one year. It is to develop our technology to a level where we can approach industries for collaboration and/or funding. On building a new fibre, it is really difficult to put a timeframe.
My job is to promote all possibilities, so I am going to say, yes, we certainly could. At least a spider silk-wool/cotton hybrid or something like that. Indeed, this is the sort of thing Dr. Flanagan is keen to do.
Overall, I’d describe my research direction as: starting with big ecological questions (effects of seasonality, populations, diet,/nutrients predators on webs) as a PhD student back in the early/ mid 2000s, I focused on the silks that comprise the webs soon after moving from University of Sydney to Tunghai (early 2010s). Having moved back to Australia, I narrowed my focus further to examining the genes making up, and proteins and molecules acting within, the silk. The idea to engineer and spin new fibres is new, however. My collaborator, Aditya Rawal at the Mark Wainwright Analytical Centre, and I floated it three or four years ago (he even asked his father, a molecular biologist in India, to help), but it only became an active project about two years ago, thanks to help from associate professor Chris Marquis at the Recombinants Facility at UNSW, and the incredible students he has managed to recruit.
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