– Robert Frost
|Moon parka ($1,000 from The North Face, Japan) made of synthetic spider |
silk developed by Spiber. Perhaps the ultimate wrap, but would you feel
trapped like a spider snack?
|Limited edition synthetic spider silk neckties |
(unisex, $314 from Bolt Threads) available
exclusively on, well, the web. Tie clasps
Unfortunately, commercial production of natural spider silk is severely limited by the fact that spiders can’t be “farmed” the way silk worms can. Spiders are very territorial and like Eugene Field’s famous cat and pup, they unfailingly eat each other up: they’re hopelessly cannibalistic.
Indeed, creatures that yield workable fibers (sheep, goats, rabbits, llamas, camels, silk worms) are virtually all herbivores. Were goats not vegan, you probably wouldn’t be wearing that cashmere sweater – even if, reminiscent of hapless Arachne, goats were transformed by the power of science into a source of synthetic spider silk. As indeed they have been! More about this in a bit.
|Conspiring to caparison the world in synthetic spider silk, CEO’s |
of Amsilk, Bolt Threads, Kraig Labs, and Spiber are taken aback by the sudden
if unlikely intrusion of a supernumerary panelist and critic.
Four years and more than half a million dollars later, Peers and Godley had produced a magnificent hand-woven, saffron-colored (the silk’s natural hue), brocade cape that’s as much a work of art as garment.
|Sacrifice of a Sacred King: To make crops grow and critters flourish, an |
Araneidae priestess clad in a ceremonial cape made from the silk of more
than a million Madagascar Golden Orb Weavers summons the spider king to
Interestingly in the case of goats, scientists from Nexia Biotechnologies developed a line of genetically modified nannies whose milk contains spider silk proteins. Unfortunately, compared to yeast and bacteria, goats require too much space and food and don’t reproduce fast enough to make commercial silk production feasible.
Still, you wonder if these extraordinary spidey nannies could be turned to some other purpose – say, making a super-springy cheese you could pass off as novelty Gruyère chewing gum to tourists in Switzerland. Or a buccal fitness-enhancing bubblegum for tubists and gaffers.
|Two-foot orb web in my backyard. It’s weaver was |
nowhere to be seen. The record-holder for such work,
found in Madagascar, is believed to be Darwin’s bark spider
that spins webs more than three feet in diameter with draglines
exceeding 82 feet. It’s silk is the toughest known.
Compared to many other synthetic fibers, however, artificial spider silk is quite expensive to produce, and it’s far from evident that at least for some applications – designer garments, for example – it offers enough of a performance advantage to justify the premium cost. Nevertheless, several textile startups have moved full steam ahead with a variety of consumer creations.
|The atonement of Arachne – and Paris!|
Japanese startup Spiber joined with The North Face to make a synthetic spider silk fabric for a proof-of-concept winter jacket, the Moon parka. Sold only in Japan so far, the coat may soon be available in the U.S.
Bolt Threads of Emeryville, California, the fastest growing of the textile startups, is known for its Microsilk. It has teamed up with high-end fashion designer Stella McCartney and outerwear maker, Patagonia. Bolt itself sold a limited run of fifty neckties that were made entirely of Microsilk.
Finally, Kraig Biocraft Laboratories has a contract with the U.S. Department of Defense to research and develop body armor made of the company's genetically modified spider silk, called "Dragon Silk."
This is all fine as far as its goes, but consumer goods like jackets, shoes, and neckties seem rather beside the point. For me, the implications of synthesizing Nature go well beyond such frivolities. The ravages of environmental change that now beset us – an insect apocalypse is already at hand – may one day soon make bio-tech and bio-engineering labs the natural world’s (us included) only remaining hope. Image swarms of scuttling micro-robotic cannibal spiders that rely on large quantities of high grade synthetic silk to trap and dispose of spring-loaded bionic grasshoppers and other such robo-pests (not to mention each other). Only Science might be able to keep them fully supplied and reliably on the job. With a little chemical inspiration – for the scientists, I mean, not the spiders – spider webs could become more complex and original than ever, virtual works of art.
While we’re about it, perhaps we could engineer the fake silk to feel less creepy when it gloms onto your face in, say, the rain forest section of some Plexiglas bio-dome.
We seem well on our way to achieving it all.