Randy Lewis, a member of the Synthetic BioManufacturing Institute at Utah State University (USU) and a USTAR professor, feels confident these applications will be realities in the near future. Lewis said he is sure that within 18 months to two years from now his team will have a way to mass produce the proteins used to create the spider silk fibers.
Six different kinds of silk are produced by orb-web weaving spiders. These silk fibers have very different mechanical properties that are so effective they have changed very little over millions of years. “Scientists have known since the late 1800s that farming spiders isn’t possible—spiders tend to eat other spiders within the vicinity,” said Lewis. “To raise spiders and harvest the web isn’t feasible because the different types of silk in the web will be different than the one type you want.”
During the past 20 years, Lewis has pioneered methods of manufacturing artificial spider silk. By transferring silk-producing genes from spiders to silkworms, goats, E. Colibacteria and alfalfa, the scientist and his team have developed alternative methods of producing the protein.