Scientists Engineer ‘Transgenic’ Silkworms to Spin Spider Silk


In what is being hailed as a breakthrough that could lead to the manufacture of stronger textiles for medical use, scientists have managed to genetically engineer silkworms that produce spider silk.

From The Telegraph:

Dr Donald Jarvis, of the University of Wyoming in the United States, and colleagues created transgenic silkworms expressing spider gene sequences.

Spider silk proteins have been long produced in transgenic bacterial, yeast, plant, insect and mammalian cells. However, previous attempts to incorporate them into fibres spun by silkworms led to relatively low yields.


But the new technique, reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, led to fibres at least as tough as spider silk and stronger than those spun by silkworms.

So silkworms may be used as factories for manufacturing tough silk fibres containing spider silk proteins, said the researchers.

Work toward producing mass quantities of spider silk has been going on for more than twenty-five years. Producing spider silk in industrial-scale quantities has benefits because, weight for weight, it is stronger than steel and as formidable as Kevlar.

Why not just farm silk from spiders, then? Well, this has proven practically impossible because spiders are both territorial and prone to cannibalism, meaning that they cannot be housed together in sufficient numbers to produce the necessary quantities to make the prospect viable.

As mentioned above synthetic spider silk genes have been placed in a number of hosts, perhaps most notably in goats. While the enhanced goats were able to produce limited quantities of the silk proteins in their milk they could not produce sufficient quantities for farming purposes.

However the more placid caterpillars of the silk moth Bombyx mori have already been farmed for a number of years so there is reason to think that their now enhanced silk could be produced in quantities that would allow for widespread harvesting.

Not only that, but it turns out that the transgenic silkworm may in fact be able to produce silk that is even stronger than would have been anticipated.

From The Independent:

“On average, the composite fibres produced by our transgenic silkworm lines were significantly tougher than those produced by the parental animals and as tough as native dragline spider silk fibre. In best-case measurements, the composite fibre produced by one of our transgenic silkworms was even tougher than the native dragline spider silk fibre,” the scientists said.

Possible uses for the silk have already been identified in the medical field where it could be used as part of bio-materials for wound dressings, artificial ligaments, tissue scaffolds and more.

The wider engineering uses include improved bullet protection.

Related Reading:

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Image used under the Creative Commons Attribution License with thanks to CameliaTWU


Sarah M.
Sarah M.4 years ago

Scary! Leave nature alone!

Eddie O.
Eddie O.4 years ago

Wow, Raquel, you've told me repeatedly that you've answered my question, when you never did, and they when you actually did answer it, you now say you never had. You really would make a great politician. :-)

Anyway, for the life of me I can understand why you have such a major fear or adversion to answering a hypathetical question, other than you know it would blow holes in your whole argument.

As you said, basically you would have to be psychotic to prefer your mother or child to suffer, rather than to alter the genes of a silkworm, which is obviously a very definite yes answer as I certainly don't think you're phychotic, or at least I sure hope not. :-)

Anyway, it can't work verbably different from how we truly believe and how we live our lives. So, while it may sound so nice to say that a silk worm is equal to all of us, in reality all of us would much prefer to alter it's genes "if" we could keep our friends or family from suffering. I think any compassionate person, who truly cares about the other people in their lives, would sure feel the same, whether they admit it or not.

Anyway, I wish you the best and hope you never need any of the technology developed from stem cells, or gene modification, to save your life or ease any suffering you could possibly experience. For me, however, I am immensely grateful to the scientists for all the vacines and other scientific developments that have saved millions of people's lives, and will continue to do so.

Raquel P.
Raquel P.4 years ago

I did not answer your "question". It is impossible to answer it in a valid way, because the question is wrong in itself. I made this clear in my comment, if you read it and comprehend what I wrote, you would know this. It’s impossible to have a conversation with you. You deny logic; all your arguments are invalid and you distort what I say to fit what you want. Then you hide behind a “politeness mask”, so it seems you are being reasonable and I’m the one who does not understand. This leads nowhere and it is just a waste of time.

KS Goh
KS Goh4 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Eddie O.
Eddie O.4 years ago

cont. --- And, as I’ve said repeatedly, only time will tell what comes out of this, whether it’s tremendously beneficial, or moderately so, or if there’s negative side effects from it. Certainly with some genetically engineered foods there have been horrible side effects, particularly with Monsanto being able to sue farmers who had Monsanto’s patented crops inadvertently start growing where they weren’t supposed to. Farmers have been losing their farms due to this, and it’s a horrible, negative effect of Monsanto’s power and influence.

Eddie O.
Eddie O.4 years ago

Oh, but I feel you are wrong, Ms. Raquel, as we are all interconnected and our survival does depend on everything else in this universe. And, more specifically, as I've already mentioned, in some cases, as with vaccines, our whole survival could have been wiped out if it was not for the advancements of science, some of which sadly did costs the lives of various plants and animals, but in those cases the pros absolutely outweighed the cons.

Anyway, you have finally given me my “yes” answer, to the hypothetical question I was asking you, and I am most appreciative of this. For a while I was thinking you were a politician due to your constant avoidance to my question. Anyway, it's good to know that you're not a psychopath, J, which I really wasn’t concerned about, but I was wondering seriously if you were a very strict, religious, right-wing, fundamentalist, nut case that couldn’t acknowledge that there are varying shades of grey to everything. Life is not always black and white, and each situation needs to be considered on it’s own merit.

And, as I’ve said repeatedly, only time will tell what comes out of this, whether it’s tremendously beneficial, or moderately so, or if there’s negative side effects from it. Certainly with some genetically engineered foods there have been horrible side effects, particularly with Monsanto being able to sue farmers who had Monsanto’s patented crops inadvertently start growing where they weren

Raquel P.
Raquel P.4 years ago

*I'll give it one last shot*

Raquel P.
Raquel P.4 years ago

I'll give one last shot. What I've been saying all along is the following. Fact: we do not need transgenic silk to survive. We do not even need silk to survive, much less transgenic! So, you're question is completely inappropriate.Therefore, it is impossible to answer your question with a yes or no, because it has no validity and it's a fallacy. You wanted a yes or no answer because, IF THAT WAS POSSIBLE, unless I was a psychopath, it's obvious I'd say yes. By answering this, I would be in contradiction with myself. But I cannot say yes, because the question is, in itself wrong. It's a fallacy, it is ridiculous, it makes no sense whatsoever. You can't deal with facts, and you still think you have scientific reasons for what you're saying... That's almost not even understandable. Our survival does not depend on the suffering of other animals. Period.

Eddie O.
Eddie O.4 years ago

Raquel, - Please don't put words in my mouth in regards to what you think I, or anyone else, thinks about you. Only you know what's in your heart, and I have told you I suspect that you WOULD rather have some silkworm's DNA altered rather than have your mother or child suffer. And, yes, this is a hypothetical question, since we don't know if that will ever be the case here, but there is a good chance that it could be the case here in time as this could be a great development.

Still you chose to not answer the question with a simple Yes or No and again, I suspect that you just don't want to admit that IT IS TRULY OKAY to value your mother or a child or another human beings life and lack of suffering above altering the genes of a silk worm. I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt here and I just think you don't want to admit it for whatever the reason.

Take care,

Raquel P.
Raquel P.4 years ago

Quoting one of my many answers to your question: "I already said it in short and so many times: your question does not make any sense, because this is not a matter of survival. Therefore, that all argument of yours does not make any sense. Your point doing all those out-of-context questions is trying to ridicule me to "prove" you're right". If you cannot comprehend this, I'm sorry. I can't a find a better way to explain myself. But you could stop insinuating that I'm a heartless bitch, because that's not polite and it's not true at all. I'm done here.