Eek! In the future, we may be wearing spider silk.
In 2012, there was a display at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum showcasing an intricately embroidered golden shawl and tasseled cape to match. The exceptional beauty of the silken clothing was not the foremost reason it was on display, but rather the fact that its fibers were spun from the silk of over a million golden orb spiders from Madagascar.
Although it took several years to procure the material and create these masterpieces, ‘spider silk’ has actually been a designer’s dream for decades. Currently several different laboratories across the globe are perfecting spider silk for a number of different uses and applications—everything from cosmetics to surgical sutures to wearable armor.
Believe it or not, spider silk products are either poised to hit the marketplace, or already have.
AMSilk, a small German-based company has been a leader in producing spider silk proteins for cosmetic use, medical devices and “biosteel” engineering of over 20 different graded spider silk variations for targeted uses. They are already selling spider proteins to the cosmetic companies and are currently working on more product uses. How have they achieved this? By genetically engineering E.coli to produce the same type of web protein extracted from the European garden cross spider.
Another type of bioengineering in the works is at Kraig Biocraft Laboratories, a Michigan-based company that, along with Warwick Mills, has spun a pair of prototype armor gloves currently undergoing durability testing. The hope is that the spider silk will be as strong as their calculations have projected. Web silk is made up of proteins (amino acid sequences to be precise) of alanine and glycine.
In theory, the make-up should render it several times more effective than Kevlar and much sturdier that steel by unit weight. The mass production piece is being achieved via genetically engineering silkworms, an already-familiar insect in the apparel world. According to Kraig CEO Kim Thompson, once the silkworm is injected with the spiders’ DNA sequence, the spider silk trait can be passed down through generations.
So what does this all mean, and how far can this new trend go? All the companies developing spider silk have their eye on mass production, and all are achieving their lab-made threads through genetic engineering—that is, creating hybrid species.
But now for the real question: Should we be creating these kinds of products?
The argument for spider silk is that it could possibly replace the water-guzzling cotton crop as a mass-produced clothing thread, thus making it more sustainable. But still—superbugs? What are the implications for these lab-made creatures? What will silk-producing E. coli bacterium look like in the future? Could there be mutations?
When Empress Hsi Ling Shi discovered silkworm cocoon material thousands of years ago, she never could have known that the ensuing lust for the luxurious material would lead to the irreversible change to the silkworm species. (Silkworm larvae are boiled in their cocoons so the silk thread is not broken during moth emergence. Millennia of domestication have rendered a large percentage of the species unable to live in the wild, and surviving moths physically unable to fly).
As the spider silk products hit the marketplace, we will see how its mass production will fare, and if in fact it will start to replace materials we currently use, like Kevlar and cotton. It’s entirely possible that we could make the switch as a society—and the positive consequences could be significant.
But as for me, I think I’ll be buying products that tackle sustainability in a more pragmatic way: I’d rather buy the Adidas upcycled ocean pollution shoes as soon as they’re available.
Meagan Braganca is a freelance writer, environmental activist, and presenter on sustainable living and climate change. She lives with her family in the Baltimore area. Follow her on twitter @mbraganca, and like her Facebook page “Global Citizens for a Livable Climate” for the latest updates on climate change issues.