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at Kraig Labs—and he used to sit on the Michigan company’s board. Today, however, Lewis is a professor at Utah State University in Logan, UT, where he has spun out a competing company called Araknitek. This startup is pursuing a number of different methods to produce spider silk, including the “spidergoats,” several of which Lewis got custody of from Enseco.
Named “Snow,” “Jessie,” and “Ruby,” they seem like normal goats, and they are—with one crucial difference. Lewis’s team placed the gene that encodes spider silk into the DNA that controls milk production in the animals’ udders. So when the goats lactate, their milk contains spider-silk protein that can be extracted in a lab. The fat is separated from the whey, and the protein solid is washed and freeze dried. The solid is then dissolved and silk fibers are spun from it.
His Utah startup, Araknitek, is also pursuing other methods to boost production of the spider proteins, including transgenic alfalfa, bacteria, and silkworms. His lab has received nearly $4 million in federal grants, including $1.9 million in August from the U.S. Department of Energy to see if spider silk fibers could replace carbon fibers in making vehicle components.
Lewis says the different methods can produce silk with different properties, which would have different uses, particularly in biomedicine. Some combinations of spider genes can provide less strength but high flexibility—like one would need in a tendon, say—or the opposite, like what is needed to support ligaments, he says.
The materials entrepreneurs say commercial spider silk, and its superhero-like properties, is definitely coming to market; it’s just a matter of time before someone creates enough of it to make a viable product. Not surprisingly, each says his respective company has the formula to do so.
It will not be easy going for any of them. Industrial giants like DuPont and BASF reportedly have abandoned efforts to create spider silk.
Brigham, for his part, rekindled his interest in the material in 2005, when he says he realized that no one had developed a fiber that was 100 percent spider silk, which he says is the strongest and most flexible material. So, he formed EntoGenetics, receiving a $22,500 business development loan from the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, and has secured a small amount of angel fundraising. This year, EntoGenetics won a $309,000 contract with the U.S. Army for a pilot-scale production of its spider silk to make ballistic shoot packs for soldiers.
Though the company now has its own R&D lab, as well as an orchard of mulberry trees—silkworms’ favorite food—EntoGenetics had humbler beginnings. The company got started in Brigham’s home, where he built out a bar in the basement to house clusters of spiders and worms. The arrangement made for some awkward times in the family’s kitchen, where Brigham cooked up the worms’ special food.