In the laboratory of a Chinese university, silkworms are turning into pioneers of the textile industry. These little beings, known for their smooth, shiny silk, are now producing something completely different: spider silk. A material that surpasses even the Kevlar of bulletproof vests in resistance. How is it possible?
The magic of genetics
Junpeng Mi and his team of scientists at the College of Biological Science and Medical Engineering of Donghua University have made a breakthrough in the field of biotechnology. They introduced spider silk genes into silkworm DNA using gene editing technology CRISPR-Cas9 and hundreds of thousands of microinjections into fertilized silkworm eggs.
Why spider silk? Spider silk is known for its incredible strength. It is six times stronger than Kevlar, the material used in bulletproof vests. But it's not just the durability that makes it special: it's also a sustainable alternative to synthetic fabrics like nylon, which can release microplastics into the environment and are often produced from fossil fuels, generating greenhouse gas emissions.
The challenges overcome
Producing spider silk from "transgenic" silkworms was no walk in the park. Previously developed processes for spinning artificial spider silk have had difficulty applying a surface layer of glycoproteins and lipids to the silk. This layer, similar to an anti-aging "skin," is what spiders apply to their webs to protect them from moisture and sunlight.
Thanks to genetically modified silkworms, this problem has been overcome. Silkworms, in fact, cover their fibers with a similar protective layer. If you want more details on the search, I'll link it all here.
"Modified" bugs, the possible applications are many
The applications of spider silk are vast. Junpeng Mi points out that this fiber can be used as surgical thread, meeting a global demand that must cover more than 300 million medical procedures per year. But it doesn't end there: spider silk could be used to create more comfortable clothing, smart materials, military technologies, aerospace and biomedical engineering solutions.
If you read Futuro Prossimo you will surely know why we love news like this. This is a solution that combines the beauty and resilience of nature with human ingenuity. It's almost a manifesto of how we would like the future.