Scientists Used Gene Editing To Make Silkworms Weave Spider Silk

Chinese researchers gave silkworms a spider gene to put a new spin on their cocoons.

Silkworm cocoons.
ermess / Shutterstock

Chinese researchers gave silkworms a spider gene to put a new spin on their cocoons.

Spider silk is one of the most amazing natural materials in the world. Incredibly strong while also being light and flexible, spider silk possesses a host of unique qualities that turn it into a “dream material,” notes Ars Technica.

Its features make it ideal for a wide array of applications, from making bulletproof vests stronger to repairing damaged nerves. A recent study has even shown its efficacy in helping deliver cancer drugs directly into T-cells, the Inquisitr reported in June.

But farming spiders to harvest spider silk has proven nearly impossible, since the arachnids are extremely territorial and aggressive, and often resort to cannibalism. Efforts to transplant silk-producing genes into other species — such as bacteria, yeasts, and even insect and mammalian cells — have also failed to produce results.

Therefore, scientists turned their attention toward a creature equally famous for its silk-weaving skills: the silkworm.

According to Phys.org, Chinese scientists have succeeded in tweaking silkworm DNA to give the critters spider genes that control the production of silk. Their work has yielded a hybrid material that contains up to 35.2 percent spider silk, well above previous attempts that only managed to produce 5 percent.

This amazing breakthrough could pave the way for the development of new biomaterials that might revolutionize everything from medicine to manufacturing and body armor, reports Ars Technica.

The credit belongs to a team of scientists from several Chinese scientific institutions, who used gene editing to splice silkworm DNA with spider proteins.

“The silkworm, Bombyx mori, has been the most well-known silk producer for thousands of years,” the researchers wrote in a paper detailing their method and the quality of the newly-obtained hybrid silk.

Instead of using the go-to CRISPR editing tool, the team, led by Jun Xu from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, opted for a technique called TALEN, which has been described as “molecular scissors.”

This allowed them to swap a piece of the silkworm genome with arachnid genes belonging to golden orb-web spiders and breed a host of genetically modified silkworms that can produce spider silk — or, at least, the next best thing.

Silkworm and silk cocoons.
Silkworm and silk cocoons. ermess / Shutterstock

Published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, their study documents a way of producing spider silk in a spider-like environment that bypasses the known issues of spider farms and is also applicable for mass production.

“Natural silks, originating from silkworms or spiders, are ideal biomaterials for a wide range of applications not only in the silk industry but also in the military and medical industries,” the authors note in their paper.

Compared with original spider silk, the hybrid material showed both an upgrade and a few shortcomings, but further experiments could help improve the product.

For instance, the material spun by the genetically modified silkworms had a smaller diameter than native spider silk and was about 16 percent narrower. In addition, it was also 16 percent less resistant.

However, despite being less tough, the silkworm-spider hybrid silk turned out to be more elastic. Tests revealed that the material could be stretched to about 1.5 times the length that normal silk could without breaking, shows Ars Technica. Furthermore, it was all ready for use, something that previous studies had failed to obtain.