Spider silk development continues
On Aug. 2, Kraig Biocraft Laboratories announced they were awarded the option phase of a contract for the development of spider silk for protective apparel with the U.S. Army.
With contributions from the University of Wyoming (UW) and University of Notre Dame, Kraig Biocraft has worked to create a more economical way to produce spider silk using gene insertion, says Kraig Biocraft Chief Operations Officer Jon Rice.
“Our founder Kim Thompson had the idea of trying to produce spider silk back in the early 2000s and finding a conventional way to do that,” says Rice.
However, the biotechnology available at the time did not enable that to happen.
“It took about four years before Kim Thompson connected with both Don Jarvis at UW and, primarily, Malcolm Frasier, Jr. at University of Notre Dame, who developed a technique called piggyBac, which is a gene insertion technique,” he explains.
After the development of the piggyBac technique, the company was able to kick off in 2006.
Although much of the work has been done at the University of Notre Dame, Rice notes that the work done at UW was the groundwork for later success.
“The work Don Jarvis at UW did in sequencing spider silk protein was the basis for the design we used going forward at Malcolm Frasier’s lab,” he continues. “What he discovered are the underlying structures and designs that we use.”
“The challenge, to date, is, we can make Kevlar, which is very strong but not very elastic,” explains Rice. “We can make materials like Lycra and spandex, which are very stretchy but don’t have a lot of strength.”
However, spider silk may be the solution to both of those problems, he says.
“Spider silk is one of those really interesting natural materials that combines both strength and elasticity together,” Rice comments.
He continues, “It’s one of the strongest materials we have, but it’s also one of the most elastic. So, combined, elasticity and that strength gives us an extremely tough fiber – tougher than Kevlar and tougher than anything else we can create.”
According to Rice, Kraig Biocraft’s technique for spider silk production involves a transgenic change to silkworms the company develops.
“We took silkworms and created something called a plasmid, which is really just a recipe,” says Rice. “The silkworm has a little cookbook in its DNA that says ‘This is how I produce silk.’”
He continues, “What that plasmid does is relays that recipe for silk production, and then we go in and adjust that new recipe into the spider silk.”
After the transgenic change is done in the silkworms, the care and production process is the same as for regular silkworms.
“From there, we produce our silk the exact same way it’s been done for over 4,000 years,” explains Rice. “We raise silkworms, we feed them mulberry, we let them go to cocoon and then we harvest those cocoons.”
In July 2016, Kraig Biocraft signed their first contract with the U.S. Army for them to test the company’s current materials.
“We delivered our first samples several months ago, and then, in the last month, we’ve received a second contract, which is just a continuation of that work,” says Rice.
He explains, now, the company will be working more in partnership with the Army to find a material solution based on Kraig’s structural design that fits their needs.
“If they want something a little bit stronger, we’ll try to work in more strength. If they’re looking for something that’s more elastic, we’ll work on that,” explains Rice.
He continues, “Once we finish our work, we’ll again deliver the materials, and they will be available for the Army to use.”
“We’re in this wonderfully frustrating space of having way more demand for our materials than we have supply currently, which is a great business problem to have but also a frustrating business problem to have,” says Rice.
As they look toward the future, he notes one of Kraig Biocraft’s top initiatives is expanding spider silk production.
Rice explains the company’s production technique is advantageous compared to other companies as it uses an already-established industry.
“One of the most beneficial aspects of our approach is that raising silkworms for silk has more than 4,000 years of history,” he comments. “It’s very, very well understood.”
Kraig Biocraft is currently looking to move some of their production operations to countries in Asia, including Vietnam.
“We’re looking at places where they have the equipment, manpower and knowledge to scale production up,” Rice notes.
He concludes. “We’re working now to get the final approval of import of our transgenic silkworms to one of the provinces there, and then we can start producing the material to the scale that can match our supply to our demand.”
Emilee Gibb is editor of Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.