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Spider Silk Is Stronger Than Steel — And Now It Can Be Made In A Lab

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This isn't science fiction, you know. Spider silk is stronger than steel. Scientists in Sweden have come up with a more efficient way to produce artificial spider silk in labs. It might soon be used in hospitals. The authors of this study are Dr. Anna Rising and Jan Johansson. They're researchers at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm. Dr. Rising joins us now. Thanks very much for being with us.

ANNA RISING: Thank you.

SIMON: And how do spiders do it? What makes it stronger than steel?

RISING: Well, spider silk is made up of proteins, and these proteins are then assembled into a fiber, and it is the binding between the proteins that makes the silk so tough.

SIMON: Now, by making artificial spider silk, are you are you putting hard-working spiders out of business?

RISING: (Laughter) No, I don't think so anyway because it's really, really laborious to reel the silk from spiders. They are territorial, and they are cannibalistic, so you can't really house them. So what you have to do is to produce the silk artificially using bacteria to produce the proteins for you.

SIMON: I'm sorry. Until this moment, I had no idea spiders were cannibalistic.

RISING: Oh, they are (laughter).

SIMON: Well, yuck. What would you use the artificial spider silk for?

RISING: We want to use it for medical applications. But there is also a large interest in using it for doing high-performance textiles, for example.

SIMON: Have you used it for anything at the moment or this is all envisioned?

RISING: No, we are currently using it to see if we can enable nerve regeneration. So you may know that if you have a nerve injury, the nerve endings try to find each other, but they can only reach for a few millimeters. But there is a German group that has taken silk from a spider and put it into a 6 centimeter-long gap. And they could show that the nerve could regenerate if the silk was there. So the silk works as a guidance for the nerves when they try to regenerate, so that is what we want to do with our fibers now.

SIMON: Oh, that could be huge. And how far along is this work?

RISING: It's just started. So we just figured out how to spin the fibers. And now we would like to put this spinning device that we developed into a 3-D printer to make the fine three-dimensional structures on the silk fibers. And these we think we can use them for these some medical applications.

SIMON: Yeah. And it sounds like you can do all this without having to worry about dealing with spiders.

RISING: Yes, yes, we can. So we have made actually a hybrid protein, so we took parts of the genes from two different spider species and fused these and then we make bacteria produce this hybrid silk protein for us.

SIMON: Dr. Rising, I'm sorry to ask this, but have you ever seen a "Spider-Man" movie?

RISING: Yes, I have?

SIMON: And do you ever turn to the people you're with and say, you know, anyone can do that if they just get enough help from my lab?

RISING: Exactly. That's what I say all the time.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: All right, I deserved. Dr. Anna Rising is a researcher at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and the Karolinska Institutet. Thanks for being with us.

RISING: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEOFF LOVE AND HIS ORCHESTRA'S "THEME FROM SPIDERMAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.