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ND makes silk worm discovery

Emily Schrank | Thursday, September 30, 2010

A collaborative research effort successfully produced transgenic silkworms capable of spinning artificial spider silks — a breakthrough that will lead to medical and non-medical applications, the University announced at a press conference

Wednesday morning.

“The generation of silk fibers having the properties of spider silks has been one of the important goals in materials science,” Malcolm Fraser, professor of biological sciences, said. “It’s definitely a very exciting day at Notre Dame.”

Notre Dame worked with the University of Wyoming and biotechnology company Kraig Biocraft Laboratories, Inc. on the research.

Spider silk is known for its strength, flexibility and toughness. It can be used for fine suture materials, improved wound healing bandages and natural scaffolds for tendon and ligament repair or replacement, Fraser said.

“Silk fibers have a whole host of applications in the biomedical realm,” he said.

Spider silk fibers can also have other, non-biomedical uses, and could possibly be used in bulletproof vests, strong and lightweight structural fabrics, improved automobile airbags and athletic clothing, a University press release said.

“With this breakthrough, it is now possible to make spider silk in large quantities and make it commercially usable,” Fraser said.

Fraser used the powerful genetic engineering tool, piggyBac, to incorporate the DNA of spiders into genetically engineered silkworms.

“Several years ago, we discovered that the piggyBac transposon could be useful for genetic engineering of the silkworm,” he said. “The possibilities for using this commercial protein production platform began to become apparent.”

The genetically engineered silk protein produced by the transgenic silkworms is comparable to the strength of natural spider silk, Fraser said.

“We’ve also made strides in improving the process of genetic engineering of these animals so that the development of additional transgenics is facilitated,” he said. “This will allow us to more rapidly assess the effectiveness of our gene manipulations in continued development of specialized silk fibers.”

Kraig Biocraft CEO Kim Thompson, also at the press conference, said his company was honored to be involved.

“I believe this breakthrough establishes Notre Dame, Kraig Biocraft and University of Wyoming as world leaders,” Thompson said.