Kraig Biocraft Laboratories has experienced growing success developing its recombinant spider silk in the last two years. Kim Thompson, CEO of the company, talks to David Stevenson about new developments and possible commercialisation in 2013.
Based mainly in the laboratories at Notre Dame University Kraig Biocraft Laboratories (KBLB), a biotechnology company focused on the commercialisation of new textiles and high performance fibres, has been working hard to develop a new range of recombinant spider silks.
About two years ago the company announced the development of several different transgenic silkworms, which were spinning a recombinant spider silk. The best of those, and the ones KBLB believes are the most commercially viable, have been called Monster Silk.
During the last 24 months KBLB has been further developing, through intensive selective breeding, a large commercial strain of silkworm to create a more refined and robust Monster silkworm.
Following this progress, the company has been considering the commercialisation of Monster Silk, which has extra tensile strength, and could have many applications within the technical textiles market, but it is difficult and expensive to mass produce the fibre inside a small laboratory.
Kim Thompson, founder and CEO of KBLB, said: “With doing almost all of the work inside university laboratories, the result has been that our production capacity is very limited.
“For a biological laboratory we are producing large quantities of material, but from a commercial perspective we are producing very small quantities. To give you an example: Just to produce 5kilos of Monster Silk in the laboratory is a major effort.
“Especially as commercial developers that have a significant share in the technical textiles market are looking for around a minimum of 50kilos of material in order to begin doing some significant test weaving.”
He stated that producing 50kilos of test material in the laboratory is achievable, but it would completely drain KBLB of resources, leaving nothing for its extensive R&D programme. But progress is being made with some companies in the commercialisation of Monster Silk.
“And we are right at the point now to begin a commercial pilot production programme within the next 60-90 days. So it is happening very quickly. At the same time we are focusing on this material for commercial production, because we do think Monster Silk is going to be a winner,” said Thompson.
What makes Monster Silk special is that the composite fibre’s structure is composed of both normal silk proteins and spider silk proteins, because KBLB put new DNA into the genetically engineered silkworms to create an enhanced spider silk.
Thompson explained: “The silkworm produces all its normal proteins, but the spider proteins are added to the fibre and act as a reinforcement - like in concrete. So the spider proteins change the mechanical properties of the fibre significantly. But at the same time the silkworm is still producing its normal silk proteins.
“This is an extremely complicated process.
“First of all it doesn’t do any good to put the DNA that tells a silkworm how to produce a spider silk protein into its brain or blood. The protein sequences have to be inserted in such a way that the silkworm knows to produce them in its silk glands – and only at the stage of its life when it is about to spin silk.
“And then, the sequence has to be incorporated in such a way that a silkworm combines the proteins together to make continuous fibre.”
He added that since developing Monster Silk, the company has opened up a new universe of genetically modified fibres which has recently seen the development of the ‘Big Red’ fibre, which has essentially been created to increase the strength, but reduce the elasticity, of a fibre.
‘Big Red’ is another composite fibre that has been designed to be a combination of spider silk proteins, silkworm silk proteins, and protein from an unrelated species.
The ‘Big Red’ name comes in part from the fact that the fibres have a slight red cast. And, under UV light, the new fibres actually glow bright red. Currently, the silk is being spun within the firm’s laboratory by transgenicly modified silkworms.
Thompson said: “This new material hasn’t really been tested yet, and we are waiting for some results. But the design is very specific. Proteins are made from amino acids, and silk proteins have an interesting amino acid profile that you can follow, which can also be translated into a DNA sequence.
“So, for example, with spider silk proteins they almost read like music. Let’s say we can read the coding in numbers. A spider silk DNA protein sequence might read like 124, 124, 546, 124, 124, 546 and that would go on for maybe 7,000 characters and when you read it, it would be like reading music. It flows like music.
“What we have done at KBLB is we have a theory about this music, and we have a theory about which bars translate into which mechanical characteristic for the silk fibre. So, when we created ‘Big Red’ what we did was customise this sequence.
“We looked at which section of the music we felt would transfer into increased strength properties and then we created artificial DNA sequences based upon that music theme to incorporate into ‘Big Red’ to create a much stronger silk fibre.”
Thompson hopes that the new fibre will come back with positive results, like Monster Silk, and believes that commercial pilot productions of ‘Big Red’ could take place before the end of 2013.
However, he said he did not want to speculate too much until testing data showed the strength profiles of ‘Big Red’.
KBLB’s CEO added that the original goal of the company was to create a pure spider silk - a fibre that was composed primarily, or exclusively, from spider silk proteins. That is not now the end goal, but is a near-term goal.
“We have been working diligently on pure spider silk material and we believe we are getting much closer. I think we are on track for producing that material in the lab this year in 2013,” he said.
In the past there has also been a lot of speculation in the scientific literature that the spider silk fibres could make excellent ballistic bulletproof materials.
“I don’t want to make those claims because our work already sounds far-fetched enough,” said Thompson. “I’d rather make those claims once I have the testing data to prove it. I don’t know that Monster Silk or Big Red is going to stand up to the rigours of having a projectile fired into it, but it might and I don’t want to rule it out.”
However, KBLB stated that there has been research into using Monster Silk in military applications, but not where the fibre has had to be used as a bulletproof surface.
Thompson noted: “We have received numerous inquiries from defence contractors, and the people that supply them such as spinners and weavers, about the material.
“We have an expertise in genetically engineered silk fibres, and I think we are the world leader in understanding spider silks and producing recombinant spider silk. But we do not have expertise in weaving, ballistic applications, and we are looking to forge partnerships and relationships with companies that do have that expertise as part of our pilot commercialisation programme in 2013.”
Please enter a short name for this bookmark.