Biotech Innovation

Producing Spider Silk Without Spiders

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    A Bavarian company appears to have made major breakthroughs in manufacturing artificial spider silk, with a range of applications in textiles, chemicals and biomedicine.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • The invention of synthetic spider silk has the possibility to be a major breakthrough in textiles, cosmetics and medical technologies.
    • Instead of milking spiders, coliform bacteria are used to produce an identical fiber in huge production vats.
    • Adidas has made prototype shoes using artificial spider silk, which are entirely biodegradable.
  • Audio

    Audio

  • Pdf
84695646 camping spider silk getty images
Customers looking for performance outdoor gear would be happy to pay for warm, dry and comfortable clothing that preserves the environment they love exploring. Source: Getty

Whenever Jens Klein wants to persuade famous companies to visit Amsilk, his small company, at its offices in a small town near Munich, he presents them with a vision: “In a department store, in a couple of years, you’ll go through the textile department, through sportswear and cosmetics. And everywhere you’ll see our products.” In other words, the potential of this small company is huge: “One day, we’ll be selling millions of units.”

The company works in what is a crucial field of the future: industrial biotechnology. “It’s about taking the best of nature and manufacturing it industrially,” says Mr. Klein. The firm has developed a procedure to manufacture synthetic spider silk. Coliform bacteria are genetically modified to produce the protein fiber in huge steel tanks. This can be turned into a dried silk powder, usable in textiles, cosmetics or as a coating for prosthetics.

Natural production of spider silk – by milking silk spiders – is elaborate and expensive. Also, according to animal rights group PETA, as many as 50000 silkworms can die to produce a single silk dress.

Synthetic silk is soft, flexible and robust. But, most importantly, it is 100 percent biodegradable. New sustainable materials are currently a major theme in the outdoor and sportswear sectors, as customers look for functional apparel that is durable and quick drying. A jacket that can do all that will easily sell for more than $200. But buyers also want its production to be as ecologically-friendly as possible.

Want to keep reading?

Subscribe now or log in to read our coverage of Europe’s leading economy.