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New GM worms mean large scale spider-silk production

Boffins sidestep difficulties of farming spiders

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Scientists in Indiana have announced success in producing a genetically modified abomination-style combo creature which is part spider and part silkworm. They believe that their creation will be handy for the production of next-generation bulletproof vests, among other things.

The cunning thing about the new arachno-worms is that they can produce spider silk, one of the strongest fibres known to science, while not actually being spiders. It is mainly the difficulty of farming spiders for their silk that has prevented the super-stuff from being widely used*.

"The generation of silk fibers having the properties of spider silks has been one of the important goals in materials science," says Malcolm Fraser Jr, biology prof at Notre Dame uni.

For the spidey-worm project, Fraser teamed up with Randy Lewis of the University of Wyoming, who is described as "one of the world's foremost authorities on spider silk".

The two men and their colleagues succeeded in introducing specific bits of spider DNA into silkworms. The transgenic worms still spin cocoons in regular style, but the silk they produce is much stronger than regular silk - it "has markedly improved elasticity and strength approaching that of native spider silk", according to the boffins.

This is a big deal, because silkworm farming is already well understood, so it should now be possible to start producing spider silk on a commercial scale. The stuff should have many medical uses, producing finer sutures, better bandages and so forth.

But there will also, perhaps, be wider applications. Spider silk is well known to be stronger for a given weight than the Kevlar widely used in body armour, so tougher and lighter protection could soon emerge from the transgenic worm farms of the future. Likewise there could be new structural building fabrics, high-tech clothing, better airbags, super-strong ropes etc.

And that's not all.

"We may even be able to genetically engineer fibers that exceed the remarkable properties of native spider silk," said Fraser, briefing reporters at a Notre Dame press conference earlier this week. ®

*No doubt we all remember the bit in the recent film of Get Smart, where the boffins furnish the hero with a Swiss Army knife containing a tiny crossbow able to shoot small harpoons attached to a spider-silk line of incredible strength. They emphasise the difficulty of producing this, saying grimly: "The spiders have to be individually milked. They do not like it."

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