USU’s Spider Silk Lab Spinning Webs of Commercialization

Most of us see spider webs and look right past them, never paying a second thought to their strength and complexity. We never see the hidden potential such as the fact spider silk is 100 times stronger than natural ligaments, 10 times stronger than natural tendons, stronger than Kevlar and more elastic than nylon.

However, Utah State University (USU) Utah Science Technology and Research (USTAR) professor Randy Lewis knows just what is possible. He has been perfecting the development of synthetic spider silk protein for more than 20 years now.

In addition to his vast knowledge on the creation of synthetic spider silk proteins, he also mentors and runs a lab full of undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral students, allowing them to have hands-on experience in both the research and application process.

In Lewis’ early research years, he knew that the mechanical properties of spider silk had a lot to offer the marketplace but nobody knew much beyond that. He was part of the first group to successfully clone spider genes, and since then has been able to clone the vast majority of genes that spiders use to make their silk.

“Once we had the genes, then we had the methodology to start spinning that out,” said Lewis. “We have different mechanisms we use to produce spider silk proteins. Currently we are harvesting proteins from E. coli bacteria, transgenic goats, alfalfa plants, and silkworms.”

The synthetic spider silk protein has a broad set of commercial applications including strings, ropes, tire cords, tents, sails, medical scaffolding and tissue replacement, medical coatings and sealants, 3D printing resins and liquid gels and cosmetics.  Additionally, the material is so strong that Lewis’s lab is testing the film as a composite layer for football helmets to absorb energy. The spider silk protein diffuses the blunt force trauma, reducing the concussive force on the skull.

The Spider Silk Lab, housed within the Synthetic Biomanufacturing Institute (SBI) on USU’s campus, is the epicenter for conducting research on these proteins, and for spinning and testing proteins to determine their strength and validity for various market applications. The SBI will be holding their annual Science and Technology Review Meeting on Wednesday, February 12, 2014 at the USU Eccles Conference Center. Current and potential industry partners are invited to come learn more about the most recent research and intellectual property updates. The SBI annual review is a great way to interact with SBI researchers, and the many undergraduate, graduate, and post-doctoral students working on spider silk projects.

One of those students, Tom Harris, says spending the past two years in the Spider Silk lab doing research and collaborating with industry to test various applications of the protein will set him apart from other grad school applicants. The most rewarding aspect for Harris has been seeing the applications come to fruition.

“What makes it worth it is seeing the application become tangible,” said Harris. “My senior design group investigated an artificial ligament and tendon made from spider silk. It’s situations like that where you can say ‘Oh, cool, here’s a product that could go to market in a couple of years and be beneficial to people.”

Several rounds of research, testing and refining the processes involved in the production, harvesting and purification of multiple types of synthetic spider silk proteins have been conducted. As a result, USU’s spin out company, Araknitek, is now ready to partner with industry. Araknitek will sell spider silk proteins that will be used to develop products with the unique characteristics provided by the spider silk proteins.

“We are working hard to scale-up production specifically in bacteria to make prototypes,” said Lewis. A new scale-up facility is now under construction and the goal is to be able to produce enough protein so that we can produce a wide variety of prototypes to indicate what a commercial partner could expect to create for the marketplace.”

Utah State University expects to have the new scale-up facility up and running to provide proteins to commercial partners by late Spring of 2014. “We feel enthusiastic about the commercial potential of synthetic spider silk,” said Robert Behunin, Vice President for Advancement and Commercialization. “It’s always exciting to see valuable research being conducted by faculty and students enter the marketplace and help revolutionize an industry.”