Artificial Spider Silk Made From A Petri Dish

Artificial spider silk is in the making thanks to cofounder and CEO of Bolt Threads, Dan Widmaier and his cofounders, David Breslauer and Ethan Mirsky who are beginning to use petri dishes to create clothing from artificial spider silk. The three scientists are working on something many others have tried all over the world to do for decades; make artificial spider silk. Spider silk is extremely soft and durable resulting in the possibility of long-lasting, lightweight and desirable clothes.

Widmaier pulled a petri dish labeled 1314 from a refrigerator. “One of the coolest things about this is that it’s self-replicating,” Widmaier says, “It eats sugar, which costs about 10  cents a pound.” The small circular container had blobs of yeast that were clinging to the sides of the dish.

“It’s making silk of some sort,” Widmaier says, noting that Bolt Threads’ data system keeps track of what is going on in the thousands of strains precisely. When the petri dish is officially ready, it will go into a fermenter where the circular container will be shaken and stirred with additional oxygen added to keep it from becoming alcoholic. The process of this is similar to brewing beer.

In the world of biomaterials almost anything can be ordered up; things like DNA, yeast, and lab made proteins. Entrepreneurs with Ph.D.’s in chemistry grow yeast within small containers, create lab-made versions of proteins such as dragline silk and even have the advantage of theoretically altering lab-grown silk. For decades, scientists have wondered about creating lab-grown spider silk that is said to be stronger than steel while still softer than a cloud.

One Canadian firm attempted spider silk-producing goats roughly two decades ago. The downfall of this project was it failed to bring its “biosteel” to the market. Ultimately the company collapsed in 2009 when they could not determine how to expose the “biosteel.”

The North Face also attempted to produce clothing with spider silk in which Japan’s Spiber partnered with them in 2015. The “moon parka” was made from spider silk but was never really worn by consumers. The “moon parka” was used more so as an art than anything else.

Adidas was another company that produced a biodegradable shoe with Germany’s AMSilk in 2016, but now the company focused on selling their biosilk to cosmetic companies.

After Bolt Thread’s launch nine years ago, business has been fairly slow. The company has produced and sold very few ties and gats from their lab-grown spider silk, Microsilk. Although it has been slow for Bolt Threads, Widmaier believes that his 130-person team has begun making sufficient scientific breakthroughs to start commercializing a lineup of lab-grown materials that will debut in 2019.

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