Incredible Development In The Quest for Man Made Spider Silk
Spider silk is one of the most amazing natural fibres, with excellent tensile strength, extensibility and stiffness. The fibre is super-fine and non-polluting. This makes it a coveted material for many applications. Nevertheless, it isn't easy to produce.
In a previous article, I mentioned a variety of silks that aren't made from conventional silkworms, including "Spider Silk". As the name suggests, spider silk is produced by actual spiders. Almost 400 spiders are required to produce just one yarn of spider silk. Unlike the slow-moving, docile silkworm, spiders are fast and carnivorous, making spider farming nearly impossible. You can read up about conventional silk and silkworms in a previous article. You may think, 'If it's so difficult to produce... then why bother?'. Well you may be surprised to hear that spider silk has been cultivated for thousands of years. Today, it is still regarded as one of the most durable types of silk and used in the production of telescopes and bulletproof vests!
Given the difficulties in cultivating spiders for silk, researchers have experimented with various workarounds to create artificial versions of spider silk. They have tried using goats, modified silkworms and microorganisms like salmonella. However, none of these attempts have been successful - until recently.
Bolt Threads, a small start-up, has finally come up with a practical way to replicate spider silk in an environmentally-friendly way, and even produce it on a commercial-scale.
Bolt Threads is an idea-driven company which was founded in 2009 by Widmaier, David Breslaur and Ethan Mirsky. As PhD students in chemistry and bio-engineering, these scientists came together for academic research purposes. Their research aimed to create man-made silks that replicated the original protein structures of natural fibres like spider silk. They later realised the commercial potential of this research, and had the idea of forming a company. Thus Bolt Threads was born. You can read more about them here.
To brew synthetic versions of spider silk, Bolt Threads has performed extensive research on the original DNA structure and protein sequences in spider silk and other natural fibres. Real spider's silk is made of proteins arranged in a very complex sequence. To replicate it, the team performed detailed analysis of the DNA structure. They then engineered a mixture of yeast, sugar and water that could yield proteins resembling spiders silk through the process of fermentation.
Of the many groups that have attempted similar processes, some of them have managed to make silk. However, none of them were successful in turning the finished fibres from the process into thread on a commercial-scale. This is where Bolt Threads is different. They not only managed to obtain fibres that resembled spider silk in appearance and performance, they could create metric tons of it through their proprietary mechanical system. This system mimics the actual spinneret of a real spider in its operation. The silk protein that is obtained from the fermentation process is spun and dried into fibres, and is the engineered version of spider silk.
Bolt Threads mention that their engineered spider silk has the best qualities of natural silk like breathability and warmth, even while it is easier to maintain and clean. CEO Widmaier also suggests that they can further customise their man-made spider silk, based on preferences. They can optimise attributes like softness, strength and stretch to different levels. This is hugely impressive as tweaking the qualities of this product enhances its appeal and renders it suitable for a whole range of additional applications.
One of the most interesting things about this man-made fibre is its sustainability and significantly low environmental footprint. All it takes is sugar, water, yeast and salts to create the product. There is no petroleum or harsh chemicals involved. The fibre is a practical solution to our daily needs, as it isn't susceptible to wear and tear like natural silk, and can even be machine-washed. Add to it that the silk is affordable, I think Bolt Threads has made a significant step forward on all fronts.
Bolt Threads is now exploring the commercial potential of their product. Their aim is not to confine the uses of spider silk to niche industries, but to make it part of consumer products that we see and use every day. For this, they intend to use it in their own line of consumer products as well as partner with other textile manufacturers to find innovative and meaningful uses for it.
The company is in the process of scaling up and has raised its total funding to $90 million. There is a declaration on their website, “Stay Tuned. We are planning to change your clothes in 2016.” So, we can expect to see their products soon enough.
Aside from this, Bolt Threads has just signed a new partnership with outdoor apparel giant Patagonia. Neither companies have disclosed the details regarding this tie-up. Although we do not know much about the product that will result from Bolt Threads bringing its silk fabric to Patagonia, I am sure we can look forward to something innovative and interesting. Read on about the deal here.
Only time will tell how Bolt Threads and their spider silk will change the face of fashion and apparel. Nevertheless, going by their success in inventing an artificial silk that ticks all relevant boxes, I think we can eagerly await and be optimistic about both their partnership with Patagonia and their own plans for the future.
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