Researchers have long envied spiders’ ability to manufacture light-weight silk that is as strong and tough as steel or Kevlar. Finer than human hair, five times stronger by weight than steel and three times tougher than the man-made fibre Kevlar, spider dragline silk is also biocompatible and thus suitable for a variety of biomedical applications such as artificial ligaments and surgical thread.
Unfortunately, natural dragline silk cannot be easily obtained by farming spiders, which are territorial and aggressive. To develop a more sustainable process, can scientists mass-produce artificial silk while maintaining the amazing properties of native silk? That is something Sang Yup Lee at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) in Daejeon, the Republic of Korea and his collaborators, Professor Young Hwan Park at Seoul National University and Professor David Kaplan at Tufts University, wanted to figure out. Their method is similar to what spiders do themselves: first, express recombinant silk proteins; next, make the soluble silk proteins into water-insoluble fibres through spinning.
For the successful expression of high molecular weight spider silk protein, Professor Lee and his colleagues pieced together the silk gene from chemically synthesised oligonucleotides and then inserted it into the expression host (in this case, an industrially safe bacterium Escherichia coli which is normally found in our gut). Initially, the bacterium refused to the challenging task of producing high molecular weight spider silk protein due to the unique characteristics of the protein, such as extremely large size, repetitive nature of the protein structure and biased abundance of a particular amino acid glycine. “To make E. coli synthesise this ultra high molecular weight (as big as 285 kilodalton) spider silk protein having highly repetitive amino acid sequence, we helped E. coli overcome the difficulties by systems metabolic engineering,” says Sang Yup Lee, Distinguished Professor of KAIST, who led this project. His team boosted the pool of glycyl-tRNA, the major building block of spider silk protein synthesis. “We could obtain appreciable expression of the 285 kilodalton spider silk protein, which is the largest recombinant silk protein ever produced in E. coli. That was really incredible.” says Dr. Xia.
But this was only step one. The KAIST team performed high-cell-density cultures for mass production of the recombinant spider silk protein. Then, the team developed a simple, easy to scale-up purification process for the recombinant spider silk protein. The purified spider silk protein could be spun into beautiful silk fibre. To study the mechanical properties of the artificial spider silk, the researchers determined tenacity, elongation and Young’s modulus, the three critical mechanical parameters that represent a fibre’s strength, extensibility and stiffness. Importantly, the artificial fibre displayed the tenacity, elongation and Young’s modulus of 508 MPa, 15% and 21 GPa, respectively, which are comparable to those of the native spider silk.
“We have offered an overall platform for mass production of native-like spider dragline silk. This platform would enable us to have broader industrial and biomedical applications for spider silk. Moreover, many other silk-like biomaterials such as elastin, collagen, byssus, resilin and other repetitive proteins have similar features to spider silk protein. Thus, our platform should also be useful for their efficient bio-based production and applications,” concludes Professor Lee.
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