German scientists create artificial silk by combining spider protein with bacteria usually found in the guts of humans and animals. It's as strong and flexible as the real thing, and because of its biocompatability, the silk could have a variety of surgical uses. Sharon Reich reports.
It's strong enough to capture prey and is so durable it could be woven into a fabric. Yet creating a synthetic version of spider silk has challenged researchers, because it's extremely difficul to harvest silk from the insects. That's where researchers from the University of Bayreuth in Germany come in. Professor Thomas Scheibel and his team, say they've created an artificial spider silk using a bacteria found in the intestines of humans and animals. (SOUNDBITE) (English) HEAD OF DEPARTMENT OF BIOMATERIALS, PROFESSOR THOMAS SCHEIBEL, SAYING: "Spider silk fibres are made of proteins so we had first have a production host for biotechnological production of spider silk proteins. The reason is that spiders are cannibalistic, so we can't kind of use them as a production host. We actually engineered bacteria, Escherichia Coli, to produce the proteins." The next hurdle was find a spinning device and the technology to actually produce the fibres. The process involves freeze-drying the protein produced using the E. Coli bacteria and then passing it through a mixture of alcohol and water. The powdered protein is transformed into a long thread in this step, known as wet-spinning. Exactly how the artificial silk will be used, is still being determined but Scheibel says the paramters are far ranging. (SOUNDBITE) (English) HEAD OF DEPARTMENT OF BIOMATERIALS, PROFESSOR THOMAS SCHEIBEL, SAYING: "We have still no clear idea of how to use the fibres we developed quite some other products, starting from cosmetic products where we use skin creams which we can be just having cosmetic aspects but also medical aspects, but we can also make coatings for implants where we improve the biocompatibility .... which is a benefit then for the patient especially if these are cancer patients with lowered immune system." Next up, the team are working on combining mice cells with the artificial spider silk to create living cells, that would develop cardiac muscles, skin or nerve tissue.