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LOGAN — A team of researchers at Utah State University say spider silk may be the material of the future — and they’re using goats to help mass-produce it.
Biology researchers are looking to spin spider silk into strong, elastic materials, “things like very, very fine sutures, artificial ligaments, artificial tendons,” Randy Lewis, a biology professor at Utah State University, said. “People are interested in composite materials to replace Kevlar or carbon fibers or add to those and make an entirely different kind of material.”
The idea of using spider silk goes back nearly 20 years. “It is a unique material,” Lewis explained. “There’s no other biological material like it. Nor is there man-made material.”
Lewis and his team looked to a popular movie scene to bolster their case. In Spider-Man 2, Spiderman stopped a train using his spider silk. “We actually went through and sort of calculated how much silk he used, how thick it was,” the professor said. They looked at the weight and speed of the train and the weight of the passengers inside the train to determine how probable the movie scene really was.
“And the answer is, he definitely can stop the train.” There was only one plot hole Lewis found. “He’d have had to eaten about 80 pounds of beef steak to produce that much silk.”
The most unusual aspect of the research may be that Lewis and his team use genetically engineered goats to produce the silk’s protein in their milk.
Lewis said the goats are more cooperative than spiders, and they are just as healthy and normal as average goats. These researchers are also producing the protein in bacteria, silkworms, “and we even have transgenic alfalfa that we just started working on,” Lewis said. The idea is that one of these sources will stick as the best one.
It's a developing science, and Lewis says that is what makes this process exciting. "We really feel like every day we come in here, we find something new.”