A little more genetic engineering for you: Spider silk from a worm

by JGordon on Sep. 29th, 2010

Like the Spiderman of silkworms: I guess.
Like the Spiderman of silkworms: I guess.Courtesy Tom or Jerry
Is this maybe a cool thing? Spider silk from genetically engineered silk worms. Or, at least, hybrid spider/silk worm silk.

Why do we want silk worms that produce spider silk, when they're already so good at pooping out their own worm silk, you ask? Because spider silk is awesome. It's super strong (as strong or stronger than most of our best artificial materials), and spiders manage to manufacture it at low temperatures, low pressures, and with water as a solvent (and it would be great if we could make strong materials that way). However, unlike wormy little silk worms (caterpillars, anyway), spiders don't play nice—you can have lots of silk worms together, and they'll all be happy to spin little silk cocoons, but if you put a lot of spiders together, they'll be most happy killing each other. Also, they are creepy.

Genetic engineers had managed to insert genes for the production of spider silk protein into goats, who expressed them by producing the material in their milk, but I don't believe it had all the qualities of true spider silk, and I don't imagine that's an ideal way to produce it.

But now scientists at the University of Notre Dame, the University of Wyoming, and Kraig Biocraft Laboratories, Inc. have succeeded in transplanting spider silk genes into silk worms. The silk they produce isn't quite as strong as spider silk, but researchers believe that they may eventually be able to get genetically modified worms to produce silk even stronger than native spider silk.

Interesting, interesting.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Sue's picture
Sue says:

Yes very interesting but also yes quite a bit creepy. Just thinking about spiders makes me shiver.

posted on Thu, 09/30/2010 - 3:18pm
lem's picture
lem says:

Silk worms turn into butterflyes after cocoon stage, what we will get of these transgenic worms if one of them complete its cocoon stage.


posted on Mon, 10/04/2010 - 12:20pm
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

I like where you're going with this (creepy is right!), but, honestly, there's no need to worry about weird, flying spider/moth hybrids.

I'd imagine that if it's even possible for transgenic worms to pupate and become moths (it could be that the modified silk wouldn't allow them to complete metamorphosis for some reason), you'd just get completely normal silk worm moths.

The spider gene is just a little chunk of DNA that tells the worms how to make a different kind of protein for their silk—it doesn't contain instructions for growing 8 legs, or making venom, or whatever. So when the moths matured, that gene wouldn't even be useful anymore, and you probably couldn't tell the difference between one of the GE moths and a normal moth. They'd still carry the gene, I guess, and there could potentially be environmental consequences from possibility that they would breed with normal moths, but I don't know about that—it could be that the gene isn't inheritable.

Interesting thought, though. It'd be cool to have an expert weigh in on any other potential effects of this genetic engineering (besides the new silk, I mean.)

posted on Mon, 10/04/2010 - 3:48pm
Sam Rolph's picture
Sam Rolph says:

This was a good article but There metamorphasis process would not fully make the hybrid a Spider silk Worm. But saying that they have only added one gene the only way the worms could grow venom is the contamination or missing 1 bit of the Gene.

posted on Mon, 11/22/2010 - 9:49am

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