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Are There 42 Bible Verses In The Constitution? A Fact Check

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We are a worldwide social network of freethinkers, atheists, agnostics and secular humanists.

Here's another cool thing one can do with genetic engineering: improve the strength of silk by expressing spider silk genes in the silk glands of silkworms. Why go through the trouble? Spider silk is remarkably strong, almost as strong as Kevlar, and flexible, and it could have many potential uses from natural sutures to body armor. Because spiders are territorial and feisty, growing spiders to collect their silk is impossible. Researchers have been trying to make artificial spider silk, and although all the genes that make silk proteins have been isolated, lab production remains very low in yield, thus extremely expensive. The next best thing is to get silkworms to spin spider silk, or at least composite silk, make of silkworm material but with spider fibers in it. The breakthrough that allowed this is called PiggyBac, a transposon (mobile genetic element) that can be used to transfer genes from a lab-made vector into the genome of an animal. The transposon was used to introduced the spider silk genes into the silk-making glands of the silkworm. The transposon also carries a gene that codes for a red fluorescent protein, so the silkworms that took up the spider genes could be easily identified by their glowing red eyes. The resulting transgenic silk is only 1-4 % spider silk, but even that small amount is sufficient to produce silk fibers that were twice as strong and more elastic than regular silkworm silk. The researchers are now trying to refine their technique to achieve an end result of a transgenic silkworm that weaves 100% spider silk. 

Genetically engineered silkworms with spider genes spin super-stron...

In a lab at the University of Wyoming, some  silkworms are spinning cocoons of silk, just as every silkworm has done for millions of years. But these insects are special. They have been genetically engineered to spin a hybrid material that’s partly their own silk, and partly that of a spider. With spider DNA at their disposal, they can weave fibres that are unusually strong and tough. It’s the latest step in a decades-long quest to produce artificial spider silk.

Spider silk is a remarkable material, wonderfully adapted for trappingcrushingclimbing and more. It is extraordinarily strong and tough, while still being elastic enough to stretch several times its original length. Indeed, the toughest biological material ever found is the record-breaking silk of the Darwin’s bark spider. It’s 10 times tougher than Kevlar, and the basis of webs that can span rivers.

Because of its enticing properties, spider silk has enormous potential. It could be put to all sorts of uses, from strong sutures to artificial ligaments to body armour. That is, if only we could make enough of the stuff. Farming spiders is out of the question. They are territorial animals with a penchant for eating each other. It took 82 people, 4 years and 1 million large spiders to make a piece of cloth just 11 feet by 4 feet.

The alternative is to synthesise spider silk artificially. That hasn’t been easy. Scientists have long since managed to reconstruct the proteins in the silk, using everything from bacteria to potatoes to goats. But these systems only provided small amounts of silk proteins, and would be expensive to scale up. Making silk proteins is just part of the far harder challenge of turning proteins into silk fibres, with their complex microscopic structures. To get around these problems, Donald Jarvis, Malcolm Fraser and Randolph Lewis had a simple idea: why not use another animal that also spins silk?

As a large industry and centuries of history can attest to, silkworms are easy to farm in large numbers. And they’re silk-spinning machines, with massive glands that turn silk proteins into fibres. Their own silk is no mechanical slouch, and it’s already used to make sutures. But spider silk has many advantages. Not only is it stronger and tougher, but we understand how specific tweaks to a spider’s genes can produce silks with different properties. It should be possible to customise unique silks that are tailor-made for specific purposes.

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