Its hard to have a conversation about materials science without hearing about how amazing spider silk is, and if only we could manufacture it everything would be different. A breakthrough in the production of synthetic spider silk could finally see this material reach the market for use in a wide variety of products. The best part it doesnt even involve any actual spiders.
Spider silk is about five times stronger than steel and three times stronger than kevlar. At the same time, its incredibly light and also has excellent heat conducting properties. Spider silk could have applications in electronics, clothing, military hardware, and untold other areas. Even with its wide range of potential uses, none of the methods found to produce spider silk in the past were remotely cost efficient. That might be changing now.
A German company called AMSilk seems to have developed a strain of E. coli capable of producing spider silk with the help of some genetic engineering. The bacteria were encouraged to express genes spliced in from the garden cross spider, allowing them to excrete spider silk protein as they also goes about the business of making E. coli proteins. This single-cell organism is able to make 20 different silk grades from four silk varieties.
AMSilk is currently making large batches of non-fiber silk proteins for sale to cosmetic companies. Making synthetic fibers is the next step, but it might be a few years before we see that AMSilks managing director estimates it could be 2016 or later. However, the non-fiber applications show that science has reached a critical juncture with spider silk. There is now a system that can produce spider silk cheaply enough to make it useful, and other companies are spinning up plans to develop their own engineered bacteria.