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Scientists in China say they have been able to genetically modify silkworms to spin silk fibres six times stronger than the material used to make bulletproof vests.

The secret? Spider silk.

“Silkworm silk is presently the only animal silk fibre commercialised on a large scale, with well-established rearing techniques,” Junpeng Mi, a PhD candidate at the College of Biological Science and Medical Engineering at Donghua University, Shanghai, and the first author of the study published in the journal Matter today, said.

Silkworms have been modified to produce spider silk by Chinese scientists. (Getty)

“Consequently, employing genetically modified silkworms to produce spider silk fibre enables low-cost, large-scale commercialisation.”

Spider silk is far stronger than silk naturally produced by silkworms.

To spin spider silk from silkworms, Mi and his team introduced spider silk protein genes into the DNA of silkworms so that it would be expressed in their glands, using a combination of gene editing technology and hundreds of thousands of microinjections into fertilised silkworm eggs.

Silkworms are producing spider silk stronger than Kevlar in China.
The fibres are six times stronger than Kevlar, the study authors claim. (Junpeng Mi)

The microinjections posed “one of the most significant challenges” in the study, Mi said, but when he saw the silkworms’ eyes glowing red under the fluorescence microscope – a sign that the gene editing had been successful – he was overjoyed.

“The exceptionally high mechanical performance of the fibres produced in this study holds significant promise in this field,” Mi said.

“This type of fibre can be utilised as surgical sutures, addressing a global demand exceeding 300 million procedures annually.”

The rejections that cost major companies millions of dollars

The spider silk fibres could also be used to create more comfortable garments and innovative types of bulletproof vests, Mi said, and they may have applications in smart materials, the military, aerospace technology, and biomedical engineering.

“We are confident that large-scale commercialization is on the horizon,” he said.

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