The Race to Put Silk in Nearly Everything

Last year, a panel of allergists, toxicologists, and nutritionists designated the coating as “generally recognized as safe,” meaning the public can buy and eat it. Mori already has pilots running at farms and food companies around the US, and larger-scale manufacturing is supposed to start later this year.

These startups are far from the only ones focusing on silkworm silk. Vaxess, another Tufts spinoff, makes disposable silk microneedle patches to dispense vaccines. Their patch preserves sensitive vaccine antigens in the tiny tips of silk microneedles, and can work with conventional vaccines already approved by the FDA. They are aiming to make shelf-stable vaccines that are easier to deploy, according to Kluge. The Gates Foundation backed some of their animal trials, and Kluge says that Phase 1 human safety studies should begin early next year. (Omenetto and Kaplan are scientific cofounders at Vaxess, Mori, and Sofregen.)

While farmed silkworms can spit out nine Eiffel Towers’ worth of cocoons every year, scientists haven’t given up on trying to coax the same from other creatures. “Spider silk is stronger than silkworm silk, and it’s more elastic,” says Lewis, the former University of Wyoming biologist who took over the BioSteel goat herd. (He is now at Utah State.)

But spider farming is still out of the question. So Lewis has spent decades searching for a workaround. In the late 1980s, he consulted for a company that figured out a way to assemble long repeating chains of amino acids—new proteins. They asked him if he could use that to make spider silk. “The problem was that there was literally no protein information on the spider silks,” says Lewis.

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Dissecting the biological code that controlled the assembly of spiders’ silk was tough, but Lewis was up for it. He sent a proposal to the US Office of Naval Research. “They got two reviews. One said, ‘This could be the best thing since sliced bread.’ The other one said, ‘I can’t imagine how anybody would possibly fund this,’” Lewis recalls. “Fortunately, the program officer took the first reviewer to heart and gave us money. Two years later, we cloned the first spider silk gene.” That work was published in 1990; after that, his research took off.

By the turn of the millennium, researchers had worked out why the simple sequence of building blocks in silk proteins give rise to such sought-after mechanical properties. They began to transplant silk-making behavior and its genetic mechanisms into other creatures. E. coli and yeast could do it. And, of course, so could goats.

The science of coaxing lifeforms into making silk didn’t stop with BioSteel. Startups like California-based Bolt Threads relied on microbes. WIRED covered Bolt Threads’ announcement of the first mass-produced synthetic spider silk in 2015—as well as its $198 wool-silk-blend beanie. But the company’s efforts toward producing spider silk slowed. “The general belief with spider silk has always been, if you build it, you’ll find a use for it,” says cofounder and chief scientific officer David Breslauer about silk’s lauded strength. “I think the devil is in the details of what you build.” Their microbe silk fibers have not been able to compete with polyester’s cost, strength, and near-infinite supply.

Production obstacles, though, have landed spider-silk researchers in a familiar place: silkworm guts. Lewis and Jones have raised five groups of silkworms spinning different spider-like silks. “That’s probably 90 plus percent of our effort,” says Lewis. Jones adds that they are in discussions with major clothing brands.

A separate venture, Michigan-based Kraig Biocraft Laboratories, has banked on the hope of spider-silk-spun-via-silkworm since the early 2000s. Last year, they developed a new technique to make custom silks. Silkworm DNA normally instructs cells to make a protein consisting of one “heavy chain” capped by two much smaller chains. Kraig Labs’ “knock-in, knock-out” tech gives the silkworm’s genetic machinery new instructions, essentially overwriting the previous recipe, replacing that heavy silkworm chain with a tougher spidery alternative. “The world knows how to make silk. We’ve been doing it for four millennia,” says Jon Rice, Kraig Labs’ COO. “All we’re doing is changing the recipe.”

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