Those of you more familiar with the Tobey Maguire/Sam Raimi Spider-Man franchise (2002-2007) might be questioning my choice of phrase. “But he was just a genetic mutant that created spider silk through a freak accident, he didn’t engineer anything!” In the original comic story, and recreated in the 2012 movie The Amazing Spider-Man, Peter Parker designs and manufactures his own synthetic web shooters. He IS a physics prodigy after all, he might as well put that genius to work!
First I thought, “Why not just domesticate spiders for mass silk production? That makes sense.” When humans decided we liked meat and milk, we fattened up a bunch of docile cows and concentrated them in a small area. This is how we get natural silk now from silkworms, the only domesticated insect.
There have been examples of people harvesting enough silk straight from spiders to make some beautiful clothing, but it takes impractical amounts of time, money, and patience. For instance, this cape was made entirely from golden orb weaver spider silk (which is naturally golden, nothing was dyed). It’s just one cape, that can’t take too long to make, right? WRONG. A whopping eight years and 1.2 million spiders were invested into this one exquisite item of clothing.
In the last few decades we have a new tool available to us to combine desirable attributes of different organisms: splicing genes! Spider silk is just made of protein, so the instructions are directly coded into the DNA. This should be an easy solution to our farming problem, cut and paste the dragline silk gene into something docile like a bacterium, goat, or silkworm. What could possibly go wrong?
So why do we keep trying to nail down this slippery substance? Because it’s still one of the coolest materials out there! To demonstrate, remember this scene from Spider-Man 2?
Clearly, comic-based science is a growing field. Can we set up a conference for this?
Chung, H., Kim, T. Y., & Lee, S. Y. (2012). Recent advances in production of recombinant spider silk proteins. Current Opinion in Biotechnology, (0). Elsevier Ltd.