Japanese researchers say they have successfully managed to genetically modify silkworms with dragline protein genes from common spiders to increase the strength and quality of silk. It raises the prospect of making spider silk production commercially viable. Joel Flynn reports.
The powers of spiders may be the stuff of lore - comic book heroes among those able to harness them. But now humans are a step closer to using a particular spider's powers. Researchers in Japan say they've found a way to transplant a gene from the Araneus ventricosus species of orb weaver into another silk producing species. Yoshihiko Kuwana led the research. SOUNDBITE: Principal Researcher at National Institute of Agrobiological Sciences, Yoshihiko Kuwana, saying (Japanese): "We put the orb weaver spider gene into commercial variants of silkworms and succeeded in producing a new type of silk with 1.5 times the toughness of common silk thread." Researchers say the silk created was at least 50 percent stronger than normal silkworm silk. Using spiders to produce commercial amounts of silk has always been difficult. Spiders don't produce silk on as large as scale as silk worms, or the domesticated silk moths used heavily in textile production. There are other problems with encouraging spiders to produce silk near one another. SOUNDBITE: Principal Researcher at National Institute of Agrobiological Sciences, Yoshihiko Kuwana, saying (Japanese): "In contrast to silkworms, spiders can be cannibalistic, so they actually eat each other, which makes it very difficult to breed a lot of them. We actually tried putting two of them into the same crate but when we came back the next morning there was only one left." There are still question marks over the viability of the practice - it's only currently been done in a lab, and genetic replacement would need to be increased significantly. But researchers here are excited at the prospect of what this development could eventually stitch together.