What happens when you cross a spider with a silkworm?
Researchers in Japan have created a genetically modified silkworm which produces a new kind of silk, that is tougher than the ordinary, industrial kind.
They did this by transplanting a gene from a specific species of orb weaver into the silk-producing worm. The spider-infused silk produced by the genetically modified worms contains a protein that makes it more resistant.
Yoshihiko Kuwana, from Japan’s National Institute of Agrobiological Sciences, led the research.
“We put the orb weaver spider gene into commercial variants of silkworms and managed to produce a new type of silk, which is 1,5 times tougher than common silk thread,” he said.
Researchers decided to use silk-worms because, while it has excellent properties, spider silk is difficult to mass-produce. One reason is that spiders are not able to produce silk on as large a scale as silk worms. But there is another major problem, as Yoshihiko Kuwana explained:
“In contrast to silkworms, spiders are cannibalistic – they eat each other – which makes it very difficult to breed them. We actually tried putting two of them together in the same crate but when we came back the next morning there was only one left,” he said.
To demonstrate the commercial feasibility of the transgenic silk, the researchers used it to weave a vest and a scarf. While questions remain over the viability of producing it on an industrial scale, the team is excited at the potential uses for this new generation silk in the future.
- E-coli: a new source of biofuel
Producing alternative types of fuel to reduce greenhouse emissions and replace the Earth’s dwindling reserves of fossil fuel is a constant challenge for researchers.
Much focus on renewable energy has centred on solar and wind power, but sustainable biofuels could now be on the verge of a breakthrough according to scientists at Imperial College London.
They have found a different source of power: bacteria. Dr Patrik Jones and his team genetically engineered E-coli – a bacteria commonly found in the human gut – by introducing selected genes to it, leading to a series of chemical reactions.
“Once you’ve optimised that system and got those different components to work together, then we can observe an impact on the metabolism, which is the production of propane,” said Dr Patrik Jones, senior lecturer in industrial biotechnology at Imperial College London.
Bacteria can naturally produce energy sources like methane and natural gas. But the advantage of propane is storage – liquid propane takes up far less space.
The genetic engineering of E-coli bacteria could be just the beginning. Jones said he and his team were more interested in using cyanobacteria, which obtain their energy through photosynthesis. This would involve the use of solar energy in the conversion process to create fuel – a process known as “photobiotechnology”.
“The nice thing with moving it into cyanobacteria is you then can utilise the fact that they harvest solar energy and use that to produce chemical energy. We can then tap into that chemical energy that it generates and divert that into the fuel instead of the biomass,” said Dr Jones.
But he did caution that his team’s work is still at an early stage, and it could take years before a commercially viable process of producing sustainable fuel is found. Further study is needed to boost productivity to a point where an industrial partner might be interested enough to consider taking on the challenge of a commercial venture.