Besides being beautiful, natural spider silk is unbelievably strong, biodegradable, and has myriad potential applications. But it's expensive and challenging to obtain. So scientists like Rising and Johansson want to generate an artificial version in the lab that's just like the real thing.
The Swedish team has their sights on biomedical applications, starting with nerve repair. Rising cited published studies, including one where about two inches of peripheral nerves were removed from sheep. Left alone, the nerve endings couldn't regenerate. Then the scientists added spider silk fibers. "The animal got the function of the nerve back, which is quite remarkable," Rising said.
Other researchers typically take spider silk proteins and put them in harsh chemicals to make them more soluble, Johansson said. Instead, he and Rising sought to replicate the conditions in a spider silk gland using only water and a low pH bath. They put a high concentration of the protein solution into Rising's device, which pumped it through tubing into a pointy glass tip. As the proteins passed through the capillary's narrow end, they got sheared, which spun fiber into the low pH aqueous buffer.
This new biomimicry system is highly efficient. "From one liter of E. coli culture, which costs a few dollars to produce, we could make protein enough for making a kilometer of silk fiber," Johansson explained.
Next, Johansson and Rising want to improve the spinning process and redefine the silk protein structures to make them even stronger. They'd also like to get their protein and device into a 3-D printer, Rising said. "In theory, we can print anything now."
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