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Silkworms hacked to spin spider-like silk

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Researchers have engineered silkworms to produce silk with the strength and elasticity of spider silk. The breakthrough avoids the task of spider farming.

Researchers have hacked the silkworm genome to spin fibers containing spider-silk proteins, a breakthrough that could lead to a long-sought biomaterial for a range of applications such as sutures, artificial ligaments and even bulletproof vests.

To prove the engineered silkworms were actually producing the synthetic silk, the researchers tagged some with green fluorescent protein, creating green-glowing silk.

As spooky as this may seem, it is a big step on a path to manufacturing silk with spider-silk-like qualities without having to venture into the even scarier proposition of spider farming.

Indeed, spider farming isn't even a viable option given spiders' penchant for "territorialism and cannibalism," note the researchers in this week's issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The team, led by Donald Jarvis at the University of Wyoming, isn't the first to incorporate spider silk proteins into silkworms, but is the first to report stable integration of spider proteins in the composite silk fibers.

"On average, the composite fibers produced by our transgenic silkworm lines were significantly tougher than those produced by parental animals and as tough as native dragline spider silk fiber," the team concludes.

The caveat is that "very few of the transgenic animals produced anything nearly so tough. And there was little consistency among the different transgenic lines," John Timmer notes in Ars Technica.

Improved results could come with further transgenic constructs or knocking out some of the silkworm's native genes, he says, but adds improving the inconsistent quality of the silk is "a tough hurdle to clear."

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John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.

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