Silkworms with spider DNA spin silk stronger than Kevlar
The study and copying of nature’s models, systems, or elements to address complex human challenges is known as “biomimetics.” Five hundred years ago, an elderly Italian polymath spent months looking at the soaring flight of birds. The result was Leonardo da Vinci’s biomimetic Codex on the Flight of Birds, one of the foundational texts in the science of aerodynamics. It’s the science that elevated the Wright Brothers and has yet to peak.
Today, biomimetics is everywhere. Shark-inspired swimming trunks, gecko-inspired adhesives, and lotus-inspired water-repellents are all taken from observing the natural world. After millions of years of evolution, nature has quite a few tricks up its sleeve. They are tricks we can learn from. And now, thanks to some spider DNA and clever genetic engineering, we have another one to add to the list.
The elusive spider silk
We’ve known for a long time that spider silk is remarkable, in ways that synthetic fibers can’t emulate. Nylon is incredibly strong (it can support a lot of force), and Kevlar is incredibly tough (it can absorb a lot of force). But neither is both strong and tough. In all artificial polymeric fibers, strength and toughness are mutually exclusive, and so we pick the material best for the job and make do.
Spider silk, a natural polymeric fiber, breaks this rule. It is somehow both strong and tough. No surprise, then, that spider silk is a source of much study.The problem, though, is that spiders are incredibly hard to cultivate — let alone farm. If you put them together, they will attack and kill each other until only one or a few survive. If you put 100 spiders in an enclosed space, they will go about an aggressive, arachnocidal Hunger Games. You need to give each its own space and boundaries, and a spider hotel is hard and costly. Silkworms, on the other hand, are peaceful and productive. They’ll hang around all day to make the silk that has been used in textiles for centuries. But silkworm silk is fragile. It has very limited use.
The elusive – and lucrative – trick, then, would be to genetically engineer a silkworm to produce spider-quality silk. So far, efforts have been fruitless. That is, until now.
We can have silkworms creating silk six times as tough as Kevlar and ten times as strong as nylon.
Junpeng Mi and his colleagues working at Donghua University, China, used CRISPR gene-editing technology to recode the silk-creating properties of a silkworm. First, they took genes from Araneus ventricosus, an East Asian orb-weaving spider known for its strong silk. Then they placed these complex genes – genes that involve more than 100 amino acids – into silkworm egg cells. (This description fails to capture how time-consuming, technical, and laborious this was; it’s a procedure that requires hundreds of thousands of microinjections.)
This had all been done before, and this had failed before. Where Mi and his team succeeded was using a concept called “localization.” Localization involves narrowing in on a very specific location in a genome. For this experiment, the team from Donghua University developed a “minimal basic structure model” of silkworm silk, which guided the genetic modifications. They wanted to make sure they had the exactly right transgenic spider silk proteins. Mi said that combining localization with this basic structure model “represents a significant departure from previous research.” And, judging only from the results, he might be right. Their “fibers exhibited impressive tensile strength (1,299 MPa) and toughness (319 MJ/m3), surpassing Kevlar’s toughness 6-fold.”
A world of super-materials
Mi’s research represents the bursting of a barrier. It opens up hugely important avenues for future biomimetic materials. As Mi puts it, “This groundbreaking achievement effectively resolves the scientific, technical, and engineering challenges that have hindered the commercialization of spider silk, positioning it as a viable alternative to commercially synthesized fibers like nylon and contributing to the advancement of ecological civilization.”
Around 60 percent of our clothing is made from synthetic fibers like nylon, polyester, and acrylic. These plastics are useful, but often bad for the environment. They shed into our waterways and sometimes damage wildlife. The production of these fibers is a source of greenhouse gas emissions. Now, we have a “sustainable, eco-friendly high-strength and ultra-tough alternative.” We can have silkworms creating silk six times as tough as Kevlar and ten times as strong as nylon.
We shouldn’t get carried away. This isn’t going to transform the textiles industry overnight. Gene-edited silkworms are still only going to produce a comparatively small amount of silk – even if farmed in the millions. But, as Mi himself concedes, this is only the beginning. If Mi’s localization and structure-model techniques are as remarkable as they seem, then this opens up the door to a great many supermaterials.
Nature continues to inspire. We had the bird, the gecko, and the shark. Now we have the spider-silkworm. What new secrets will we unravel in the future? And in what exciting ways will it change the world?
Today’s podcast guest is Rosalind Picard, a researcher, inventor named on over 100 patents, entrepreneur, author, professor and engineer. When it comes to the science related to endowing computer software with emotional intelligence, she wrote the book. It’s published by MIT Press and called Affective Computing.
Dr. Picard is founder and director of the MIT Media Lab’s Affective Computing Research Group. Her research and engineering contributions have been recognized internationally. For example, she received the 2022 International Lombardy Prize for Computer Science Research, considered by many to be the Nobel prize in computer science.
Through her research and companies, Dr. Picard has developed wearable sensors, algorithms and systems for sensing, recognizing and responding to information about human emotion. Her products are focused on using fitness trackers to advance clinical quality treatments for a range of conditions.
Meanwhile, in just the past few years, numerous fitness tracking companies have released products with their own stress sensors and systems. You may have heard about Fitbit’s Stress Management Score, or Whoop’s Stress Monitor – these features and apps measure things like your heart rhythm and a certain type of invisible sweat to identify stress. They’re designed to raise awareness about forms of stress such as anxieties and anger, and suggest strategies like meditation to relax in real time when stress occurs.
But how well do these off-the-shelf gadgets work? There’s no one more knowledgeable and experienced than Rosalind Picard to explain the science behind these stress features, what they do exactly, how they might be able to help us, and their current shortcomings.
Dr. Picard is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, and a popular speaker who’s given over a hundred invited keynote talks and a TED talk with over 2 million views. She holds a Bachelors in Electrical Engineering from Georgia Tech, and Masters and Doctorate degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT. She lives in Newton, Massachusetts with her husband, where they’ve raised three sons.
In our conversation, we discuss stress scores on fitness trackers to improve well-being. She describes the difference between commercial products that might help people become more mindful of their health and products that are FDA approved and really capable of advancing the science. We also talk about several fascinating findings and concepts discovered in Dr. Picard’s lab including the multiple arousal theory, a phenomenon you’ll want to hear about. And we explore the complexity of stress, one reason it’s so tough to measure. For example, many forms of stress are actually good for us. Can fitness trackers tell the difference between stress that’s healthy and unhealthy?
- Dr. Picard’s book, Affective Computing
- Dr. Picard’s bio
- Dr. Picard on Twitter
- Dr. Picard’s company, Empatica - https://www.empatica.com/ - The FDA-cleared Empatica Health Monitoring Platform provides accurate, continuous health insights for researchers and clinicians, collected in the real world
- Empatica Twitter
- Dr. Picard and her team have published hundreds of peer-reviewed articles across AI, Machine Learning, Affective Computing, Digital Health, and Human-computer interaction.
- Dr. Picard’s TED talk
If you look back on the last century of scientific achievements, you might notice that most of the scientists we celebrate are overwhelmingly white, while scientists of color take a backseat. Since the Nobel Prize was introduced in 1901, for example, no black scientists have landed this prestigious award.
The work of black women scientists has gone unrecognized in particular. Their work uncredited and often stolen, black women have nevertheless contributed to some of the most important advancements of the last 100 years, from the polio vaccine to GPS.
Here are five black women who have changed science forever.
Dr. May Edward Chinn
Dr. May Edward Chinn practicing medicine in Harlem
George B. Davis, PhD.
Chinn was born to poor parents in New York City just before the start of the 20th century. Although she showed great promise as a pianist, playing with the legendary musician Paul Robeson throughout the 1920s, she decided to study medicine instead. Chinn, like other black doctors of the time, were barred from studying or practicing in New York hospitals. So Chinn formed a private practice and made house calls, sometimes operating in patients’ living rooms, using an ironing board as a makeshift operating table.
Chinn worked among the city’s poor, and in doing this, started to notice her patients had late-stage cancers that often had gone undetected or untreated for years. To learn more about cancer and its prevention, Chinn begged information off white doctors who were willing to share with her, and even accompanied her patients to other clinic appointments in the city, claiming to be the family physician. Chinn took this information and integrated it into her own practice, creating guidelines for early cancer detection that were revolutionary at the time—for instance, checking patient health histories, checking family histories, performing routine pap smears, and screening patients for cancer even before they showed symptoms. For years, Chinn was the only black female doctor working in Harlem, and she continued to work closely with the poor and advocate for early cancer screenings until she retired at age 81.
Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy
Alice Ball was a chemist best known for her groundbreaking work on the development of the “Ball Method,” the first successful treatment for those suffering from leprosy during the early 20th century.
In 1916, while she was an undergraduate student at the University of Hawaii, Ball studied the effects of Chaulmoogra oil in treating leprosy. This oil was a well-established therapy in Asian countries, but it had such a foul taste and led to such unpleasant side effects that many patients refused to take it.
So Ball developed a method to isolate and extract the active compounds from Chaulmoogra oil to create an injectable medicine. This marked a significant breakthrough in leprosy treatment and became the standard of care for several decades afterward.
Unfortunately, Ball died before she could publish her results, and credit for this discovery was given to another scientist. One of her colleagues, however, was able to properly credit her in a publication in 1922.
onathan Newton/The Washington Post/Getty
The person who arguably contributed the most to scientific research in the last century, surprisingly, wasn’t even a scientist. Henrietta Lacks was a tobacco farmer and mother of five children who lived in Maryland during the 1940s. In 1951, Lacks visited Johns Hopkins Hospital where doctors found a cancerous tumor on her cervix. Before treating the tumor, the doctor who examined Lacks clipped two small samples of tissue from Lacks’ cervix without her knowledge or consent—something unthinkable today thanks to informed consent practices, but commonplace back then.
As Lacks underwent treatment for her cancer, her tissue samples made their way to the desk of George Otto Gey, a cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins. He noticed that unlike the other cell cultures that came into his lab, Lacks’ cells grew and multiplied instead of dying out. Lacks’ cells were “immortal,” meaning that because of a genetic defect, they were able to reproduce indefinitely as long as certain conditions were kept stable inside the lab.
Gey started shipping Lacks’ cells to other researchers across the globe, and scientists were thrilled to have an unlimited amount of sturdy human cells with which to experiment. Long after Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951, her cells continued to multiply and scientists continued to use them to develop cancer treatments, to learn more about HIV/AIDS, to pioneer fertility treatments like in vitro fertilization, and to develop the polio vaccine. To this day, Lacks’ cells have saved an estimated 10 million lives, and her family is beginning to get the compensation and recognition that Henrietta deserved.
Dr. Gladys West
Gladys West was a mathematician who helped invent something nearly everyone uses today. West started her career in the 1950s at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division in Virginia, and took data from satellites to create a mathematical model of the Earth’s shape and gravitational field. This important work would lay the groundwork for the technology that would later become the Global Positioning System, or GPS. West’s work was not widely recognized until she was honored by the US Air Force in 2018.
Dr. Kizzmekia "Kizzy" Corbett
At just 35 years old, immunologist Kizzmekia “Kizzy” Corbett has already made history. A viral immunologist by training, Corbett studied coronaviruses at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and researched possible vaccines for coronaviruses such as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome).At the start of the COVID pandemic, Corbett and her team at the NIH partnered with pharmaceutical giant Moderna to develop an mRNA-based vaccine against the virus. Corbett’s previous work with mRNA and coronaviruses was vital in developing the vaccine, which became one of the first to be authorized for emergency use in the United States. The vaccine, along with others, is responsible for saving an estimated 14 million lives.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago.