CHEYENNE - Watch out, Spider-Man: Your webbing is about to be used for more than fighting crime.
University of Wyoming professor Don Jarvis, along with collaborators in Indiana, Utah and Michigan, has developed a revolutionary technique to inject silkworms with spider DNA, resulting in a silk that's several times stronger and more durable than traditional silk.
Within the next year or two, researchers say, silkworms could be producing 100 percent spider silk to be used in everything from stronger underwear to artificial tendons to body armor.
"This material is so superior, it's hard to see why anyone would prefer to have regular silk when they could have spider silk or a spider silk blend," said Kim Thompson, CEO of Kraig Biocraft, a Michigan-based company with exclusive rights to market the new fiber. "I do think that it's going to largely replace the regular silk market."
A couple of years ago, Jarvis and fellow UW professor Randy Lewis had offices next to each other at the school's Animal Sciences/Molecular Biology Building. Lewis had isolated the genes in spiders that cause them to make silk webbing and was studying how to manufacture large amounts of spider silk. Jarvis' specialty was silkworms.
One day, the two began chatting about their research. Lewis talked about how setting up a spider silk farm was impossible, as the arachnids are territorial and cannibalistic. A second plan, to implant spider silk proteins in goats then harvest the silk through their milk, was expensive and inefficient.
That's when Jarvis brought up his line of work.
"When we got to talking about things, it was like, 'Why are you making that protein in goats? I think if you made it in silkworms, you'd be better off,"' Jarvis said. "And he said, 'Yeah, yeah, we should do that."'
Meanwhile, 1,000 miles to the east, Thompson was having a similar discussion with University of Notre Dame biological sciences professor Malcolm Fraser, who specializes in gene insertion techniques.
The pair started collaborating with Jarvis and Lewis - who now teaches at Utah State University - to find a way to insert spider genes into silkworm eggs. The silkworms that hatched would be mated together, the plan went, and their offspring would be able to produce spider silk instead of regular silk.
"From the scientific community, it was viewed as an impossibility," Thompson said. "And by the business community, it was viewed as an impossible, ridiculous risk."
But it worked.
At Fraser's lab in Indiana, silkworms now produce a fiber that's 95 percent regular silk, and 5 percent spider silk.
And within the next couple months, Thompson said, the goal is to engineer silkworms that can produce 100 percent spider silk.
The breakthrough now means that spider silk could start appearing at stores around the country within months. And eventually, researchers said, the silk could be incorporated into everything from military armor to medical procedures.
The 5 percent spider silk blend already developed, dubbed "monster silk" by Thompson's company, could be on the market by late this year, Thompson said. Kraig Biocraft is looking to buy out a "medium-sized" sports apparel company, he said, to manufacture stronger, more flexible sportswear with the fiber.
If they engineer silkworms to produce 100 percent spider silk, Thompson said, that could lead to spider silk body armor that feels like regular silk but is stronger than Kevlar.
But that's just the beginning. As researchers develop a better understanding of how to tweak spider silk production, Thompson said, within a matter of years they could engineer silk that automatically produces its own antibiotics to use as sutures. Super-strong silk could be used to manufacture ultra-lightweight airplane parts. Manufacturers could order spider silk with a customized strength and flexibility.
"It's infinite. We have more projects than we could fulfill in a lifetime," Thompson said.
"This sounds like science fiction, but we have some of this mapped out on paper. And given where we're at right now in terms of our production ability in the lab, we think this is very viable."
As UW owns the patents on the spider silk genes, the school stands to make a significant amount of money should these plans pan out.
Public interest in the development of spider silk spiked in recent weeks after the researchers' work was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Since then, Jarvis said there's been a "media circus" about their discovery.
"There's a tremendous interest in spiders and spider silk," Jarvis said. "It just seems to tweak the public's imagination."