Animal Note: Artificial Spider Silk
Air Date: Week of January 18, 2002
Living on Earth’s Maggie Villiger reports on how scientists are finally catching up with millions of years of spider evolution and manufacturing spider silk.
CURWOOD: Coming up, an entire province in Canada goes green--with garbage, that is. Meet the composting Nova Scotians. First, this page from the Animal Notebook, with Maggie Villiger.
VILLIGER: For years, spider silk has been the Holy Grail of material scientists. Spider silk is said to be at least five times stronger than steel, and it's lightweight and flexible, too. Setting up arachnid assembly lines to spin out silk for industrial uses, however, is far from feasible. But there is a way to manufacture vast quantities of this strong stuff. The first hurdle is making enough of the spider silk protein. Researchers are doing this by inserting the spider gene for making the silk protein into cow and hamster cells. These cells then secrete the building blocks of spider silk. And now, for the first time, scientists have devised a way to spin these raw silk materials into longer strands. They push the watery protein solution through a tiny opening analogous to the spinneret through which the spiders secrete their silk. Water is squeezed out of the mixture and the protein molecules join together, forming long liquid crystal filaments. The researchers have also inserted the spider genes into living goats and are waiting for them to mature. Eventually, they hope to harvest mass quantities of silk proteins from the goats' milk. The goal is to turn the silk into everything from very fine sutures for eye or nerve surgery to bullet- proof vests to biodegradable fishing line. That's this week's Animal Note. I'm Maggie Villiger.
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CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.
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