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Spider Silk

When Al Gore and astrophysicist, science communicator-to-themasses Neil deGrasse Tyson sat down for a chat on the April 11, 2016, episode of the latter’s Innovators program on Tech Insider’s StarTalk Radio Show, the topic turned to the ethics of biotechnology.

“You know about spider goats?” Gore asked.

“Sounds interesting,” Tyson replied

The former vice president described USU’s research, led by Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative (USTAR) professor Randy Lewis, in genetically modifying goats to produce spider silk protein in their milk.

The two marveled at the technology and, while both agreed they were “okay” with this type of research, they urged caution with emerging genetic engineering.

“That gets creepy,” Tyson said

Interestingly, “creepy” is exactly the word Gore frequently uses to describe a vague uneasiness many feel when confronted with rapid technological changes.

No, he isn’t making a clever pun about arachnids. Rather, in his recent book, The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change, Gore defines “creepiness” as “a comparably indeterminate ‘pre-fear’ that many feel when contemplating some of the onrushing advances in the world of genetic engineering.”

Creepy? Most people describe USU’s spider goats as adorable. In fact, Lewis makes an effort to display his goats in public as much as possible to demonstrate their normalcy. No one can tell the difference between the goats that have received spider silk genes and those that haven’t.

Even so, Lewis’ goats and his research continue to capture people’s imaginations. In addition to the transgenic ruminants, the USU professor also produces synthetic spider silk from transgenic alfalfa, silkworms and bacteria. He regularly fields media inquiries from the BBC, Associated Press, the Discovery Channel and more.

Named the College of Science’s 2016 Undergraduate Research Mentor of the Year, Lewis and his students are exploring a variety of future applications for his lab’s products. Undergrads Breton Day and Danielle Gaztambide presented findings on using the silk for gels, adhesives and coatings for medical implants at the 2016 Material Research Society Spring Meeting in Phoenix.

“Our silk solutions are made from protein and water,” says Gaztambide. “They don’t cause an immune response or inflammation when used in the human body, which greatly reduces the risk of infection and offers a tremendous advantage over conventional materials.”

With U.S. Army funding, Lewis is also investigating use of synthetic spider silk fabric to produce military clothing that doesn’t melt (and cause further injury) during searing temperatures wrought by explosive devices.

“Spider silk can produce fabric that’s lighter, stronger and stretchier than nylon,” Lewis says. “This could make a big difference to troops carrying heavy gear in harsh conditions. Plus, in a fire or explosion, it simply chars and breaks down.”

Additional applications for synthetic spider silk could include lighter, stronger and safer vehicle air bags and body armor, as well as lighter and stronger vehicles with greater fuel efficiency and more resistance to collision damage.

—MARY-ANN MUFFOLETTO