Monday, September 15, 2008

Spider Goats

There is a secret in the tough, French-speaking farming country in rural Quebec. Not far from the remote hamlet of St. Telesphore is the old maple sugar farm that now houses goats. Goats hardly seem to be worth keeping secrets over; that is, unless they are these goats.

Strangely, no one in the area seems to be bothered by the fact that a new chapter in biotechnology is being played out in a remote region of Canada. Nexia scientists are pursuing a bizarre experiment that some would herald as coming straight from “The Island Of Dr. Moreau,” H.G. Wells’ dark science-fiction tale of a mad scientist who breed experimental animal/human crosses on his private island.

A herd of goats containing spider genes is about to be milked for the ingredients of spider silk to mass produce one of nature’s most sought-after materials – biosteel.

For the first time in the history of mankind, scientists have been able to spin synthetic spider-silk fibers with properties approaching real spider silk. This will pave the way for their adaptation for use in artificial tendons, medical sutures, biodegradable fishing lines, soft body armour and a host of other applications.

Spider silk has long been admired by material scientists for its unique combination of toughness, lightness and biodegradability. Dragline silk, which comprises the radiating spokes of a spider web, is stronger than the synthetic fiber Kevlar (which is used to make bullet-proof vests), stretches better than nylon and when compared weight for weight is five times stronger than steel.

These incredible qualities are the product of 400 million years of evolution. Now spider yarn has been spun by the US Army and the company Nexia Biotechnologies of Montreal, marking a milestone in efforts to ape arachnids. The work "opens up a lot of things on the practical level and on a research level," said Dr Randy Lewis, a spider silk expert at the University of Wyoming, Laramie.

Dr Jeffrey Turner, President of Nexia, said: "Mimicking spider silk properties has been the holy grail of material science and now we've been able to make useful fibers. It's incredible that a tiny animal found literally in your backyard can create such an amazing material by using only amino acids, the same building blocks used to make skin and hair."

Spider silk is a material science wonder, "a self-assembling, biodegradable, high-performance, nanofiber structures one-tenth the width of a human hair that can stop a bee traveling at 20 miles per hour without breaking. Spider silk has dwarfed man's achievements in material science to date."

Nexia's president and C.E.O., Jeffrey D. Turner, says ''What we're doing here is ingeniously simple. We take a single gene from a golden orb-weaving spider and put it into a goat egg. The idea is to make the goat secrete spider silk into its milk.''

Turner, makes a sweeping gesture, “spider silk is practically the world's strongest material,'' he explains. ''It's much stronger than steel -- five times as strong. We're going to make fishing lines out of it.''

“Biodegradable fishing lines. Or maybe tennis racket strings. You could make hundreds of things out of spider silk, if only you could produce enough of it. Biodegradable sutures for surgery . . . replacement ligaments or tendons . . . hemostatic dressings . . . fashion. We call our product BioSteel.''

Turner isn't simply fantasizing. Nexia foresees tapping into the $500 million market for fishing materials as well as the $1.6 billion market for industrial fibers in the near future. Lost fishing nets and fishing nets degrading and disappearing rather than remaining forever to ensnare fish does have its attractions.

And the haute-couture world is already intrigued by a nearly weightless gossamer-like fabric. But the real gold mine might be body armor: the Pentagon is working with Nexia to develop a prototype of a new kind of vest that might be made entirely out of goat silk. The vest would be only a little thicker than nylon; but, it could stop a bullet dead. The thought of bringing more of our men back from the war zones has immense attractions as well.

''It's nothing short of a revolution,'' Turner exclaims. ''This special silk is the first transgenic material ever made. The amazing thing, however, is that we're changing the world from a tiny low-rent sugar farm, and our only machinery is a goat.''

No comments: