Thursday, February 21, 2013

Spider Silk: Al Gore Describes USU's "Creepy" Science

Transferring silk-producing genes from spiders to goats, silkworms, E. coli bacteria and alfalfa is "creepy"? Former U.S. vice president Al Gore says some folks seem to think so.

And, no, he's not making a clever pun about arachnids. Gore describes "creepy" as a vague uneasiness some have about emerging research. In his recently published book, The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change, Gore describes this feeling as "a comparably indeterminate 'pre-fear' that many feel when contemplating some of the onrushing advances in the world of genetic engineering."

Gore cites synthetic spider silk research, pioneered by USU molecular biologist Randy Lewis, as an example of "creepy" science:

"A method for producing spider silk has been developed by genetic engineers who insert genes from orb-making spiders into goats which then secrete the spider silk -- along with milk -- from their udders. Spider silk is incredibly useful because it is both elastic and five times stronger than steel by weight. The spiders themselves cannot be farmed because of their antisocial, cannibalistic nature. But the insertion of their silk-producing genes in the goats allows the farming of the goats.

In any case, there is no doubt that the widespread use of synthetic biology -- and particularly the use of self-replicating artificial life forms -- could potentially generate radical changes in the world, including some potential changes that arguably should be carefully monitored." 

Is production of synthetic spider silk creepy? Here at USU, we think it's cool.

Spend a little time with Professor Lewis' "spider goats" and they don't seem creepy at all. In fact, at a USU Science Unwrapped event in Nov. 2011, Lewis and his team set up a pen of transgenic and non-transgenic goats and asked visitors to identify which had received spider silk genes and which hadn't. (No one could tell the difference.)

At USU's Science Unwrapped event "Spider Silk: Ancient Biomaterial for the Future," guests enjoy a visit with Lewis' lovable "spider goats."

Applications Lewis envisions for the manufactured spider silks include artificial ligaments, tendons, bone and skin, as well as more effective vehicle air bags -- safe enough for babies and young children -- and lighter, stronger and more comfortable body armor. A member of Lewis' research team is investigating the glue spiders secrete to cement strands of web together -- a glue that, someday, could be used to heal human faces marred by trauma or disease and prevent debilitating disfigurement.

Creepy? In a good way. We'd call it, "life-enhancing."

Related links:

Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto

No comments:

Post a Comment