Spider-Man's Webbing Swings from Comics to Reality

Spider-Man's Webbing Swings from Comics to Reality


 By Gregg Bayes-Brown

Image courtesy of Marvel.

Short of rolling around in a spider’s nest near Chernobyl, the dream of donning the red and blue spidey suit and web-slinging your way around Manhattan has always been tantalisingly out of reach.

But not for much longer, says the University of Wyoming.

Researchers at the University have succeeded in producing genetically modified silk-worms that produce a much stronger silk.

The aim of the project, as the University reported in the PNAS Journal, is to modify the silk-worms to the point where they produce spider silk; an aim many scientists have been working towards for years.

Spider silk is stronger than steel, and would be able to provide a range of applications (including, but not limited to, stopping crime). The obvious applications would be medical, with spider silk helping to provide more effective and durable implants, ligaments, or even bullet-proof skin. However, owing to the strength of the silk, it could also be used for commercial purposes such as providing an alternative to toughened plastics.

However, the issue with harvesting spider silk is that spiders generally don’t produce enough silk for commercial purposes, and instead spend most of their time eating each other.

Silk worms, on the other hand, are easy to harvest for their silk, but produce very weak silk compared to spiders. Researchers have been attempting to genetically modify a happy compromise between the two for years, but with little tangible results until now.

The GM worms produce a composite of both spider silk and their own which, according to researchers, is as strong as regular spider silk.

In relation to the work, Dr Christopher Holland of the University of Oxford said to the BBC, “Essentially, what this paper has shown is that they are able to take a component of spider silk and make a silkworm spin it into a fibre alongside its own silk.”

He added, “They have also managed to show that this composite, which contains bits of spider silk and mainly the silkworms' own silk, has improved mechanical properties."

Relevant Links
University of Wyoming
Spider Silk Skin
University of Oxford