Spider Silk Crawling Toward a Market Near You?
Could silk from spiders be the next breakthrough in fabrics? Scientists and entrepreneurs have been searching for decades to find a way to get this amazing substance to market. But starting a spider ranch is not as straightforward as one might suspect – and all sorts of attempts have been made.
Spiders are not cooperative in the ways that silk worms are. They are territorial, for starters. Another barrier to setting up a successful colony of silk-weaving arachnids is that they tend to be cannibalistic. Not ideal for fashioning a bustling spider neighborhood.
A startup with $40 million in funding called Bolt Threads may have broken through the silk barrier, however. The trick to making the best spider silk is to do it without actual spiders. Bolt has developed genetically engineered organisms, through a yeast fermentation process, that can produce large quantities of silk. That part of the process has been known for years, but the new technology uses a proprietary liquid bath to coat the silk proteins and transform them into the usable end product of solid fibers.
Bolt CEO Brian Widmaier recently explained that the process is superior to using raw spider silk because the proteins can be manipulated to emphasize various qualities of the fiber. Bolt can make spider silk that’s stronger, stretchier, or waterproof, for example, depending on preference. “What we’ve learned is we could prod nature a little bit in the lab and engineer these new properties in,” says Widmaier.