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Goats And Spiders Are Working Together To Create A Novel Material

By lacing goat's milk with synthesised spider proteins, researchers in Quebec plan to make an incredibly light fabric that is both biodegradable and strong enough to stop bullets. Called biosteel, it could become a green alternative to the high- strength plastics used to package shampoos or make commercial fishing nets.

Jeff Turner, president of Nexia Biotechnologies, says the biodegradable fabric would need to be sealed from the environment if used in critical applications such as body armour or spacecraft. This is because bacteria could get in and digest it.

Turner's team has already taken the first step towards creating biosteel by transferring the spider gene for the protein into goat mammary cells and collecting soluble protein from the milk. And they expect genetically engineered goats to start producing the protein in the next few months.

While nobody has yet made a fabric from biosteel, Turner is convinced the protein can be turned into a supermaterial because of its natural role in the silk of a spider's web. "When you think of what a web has to do, its extreme strength makes perfect sense," he says. The silken threads of the web must be nearly invisible to prey and yet be able to bring a fly to a screeching halt.

Evolution came up with a two-pronged answer to this problem. First came a rock-solid protein, capable of making many bonds with its neighbours. Then, the spider developed a unique way of spinning the protein into a whisper-thin thread. As the spider secretes the protein solution, the silk dries and pulls taut, transforming the proteins into a nearly crystalline and completely insoluble cable. This explains why webs don't dissolve in the rain. Tests on natural silk show that it can be stronger and more elastic than high- tensile steel or the Kevlar found in body armour.

But the very properties that make silk proteins strong also make them difficult to produce. When bacteria are engineere
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Contact: Claire Bowles
claire.bowles@rbi.co.uk
44 171 331 2751
New Scientist
7-Oct-1998


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