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Artificial spider silk could improve body armor, parachutes

by Maria Callier
Air Force Office of Scientific Research Public Affairs

2/28/2008 - WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFPN) -- The Air Force Office of Scientific Research is supporting a team from the University of Wyoming that is investigating spider silk proteins to create biomaterials for military purposes.

Producing useful quantities of natural spider silk has proven unrealistic because of challenges inherent in managing large numbers of small spiders which are typically cannibalistic. As a result, researchers have been creating artificial spider silk that is stronger than the polymer Kevlar and more flexible than nylon.

To produce new kinds of spider silks, the team has made its own spider silk genes and put them into bacteria to produce chemically identical spider silk proteins for use in experiments.

"We then spin the proteins into fibers and test them for better properties," said Dr. Randy Lewis, the team leader. "We also have produced genetically-modified goats that produce milk containing the spider silk proteins to aid us in our research."

The proteins derived from the goat's milk can be spun into strong, lightweight, and extremely elastic silk to be used in the construction of light, bulletproof vests for the military. The fibers can also be used for much stronger parachutes enabling larger payloads to be delivered. They can also be used to create artificial ligaments.

"We have now produced 15 new spider silks," Dr. Lewis said. "We think that we should be able to improve their properties as we improve the process of spinning the fibers."

"To make a 5-pound bulletproof vest, a producer would use 600 gallons of goat milk containing the silk protein. The milk production from 200 goats in one day would be used for just one vest," Dr. Lewis said in a recent article.

Dr. Lewis noted that spider silk body armor will be more expensive, however, the silk body armor is light and elastic and therefore more adaptable to different needs, he said.

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