Genetically modified silkworks produce miracle fiber for New Ipswich firm
NEW IPSWICH — Blending the replicated DNA of spiders with the silk spinning-skills of caterpillars, Kraig Biocraft Laboratories in Michigan has created a fiber unlike any other. New Hampshire-based Warwick Mills will soon begin turning that fiber into a brand-new fabric.
Kim Thompson, the CEO and founder of Kraig Biocraft, said there has been interest in harvesting the incredibly strong and flexible silk from spiders for years, but despite the investment in research and development by the U.S. Army and other organizations, no one was able to produce the spider silk commercially.
"You can't just put spiders together in a group and expect them to spin silk," Thompson said. "It's just not possible."
There were attempts by researchers to take the DNA that controls the production of silk from the spiders and put it in other organisms, but those trials didn't pan out — until Thompson found a way to digitally replicate spider DNA in the lab and insert it into silkworms.
The fiber has been dubbed "Monster Silk."
Working with scientists at the University of Notre Dame, Thompson was able to find a way to exponentially increase the number of worms that could be genetically modified, and brought production overseas, where the fibers could be created for around the same cost as regular silk.
"We're ramping up production in the facility and will have millions of these silkworms raised for commercial production in several months," he said.
Producing the fibers, however, was only part of the challenge. Thompson had to find a company that could convert them into marketable material.
Warwick Mills has been working with technical textiles for close to a century. Charles Howland, president of Warwick Mills, said the company has continued to weave high-tech fibers such as Kevlar, and its own TurtleSkin, which is used in everything from body armor to gloves to inflatable aircraft.
Fibers are measured by their strength, but also by their ability to absorb energy from things like a bullet or shrapnel from an improvised explosive device. The energy absorption measure is called "elongation to break." Kevlar, used in body armor, has a 3 percent elongation to break, Howland said. Monster Silk has more than 10 times that ability to absorb energy.
The fabric could provide dramatically increased protection for police officers, soldiers, and others who rely on body armor, according to Thompson.
"I set up this concept to benefit mankind," he said. "I thought going into this, 'What can I do to help protect people?' This fiber is a huge step forward."
The fabric is also being sought by other types of industries, including sports apparel and sporting goods manufacturers, Thompson said.
"The whole market opens up for us once we have the ability to show people these textiles," he said.
Next month, Howland and Warwick Mills' 150 workers expect to get the first shipment of Monster Silk, but it could be years before the fibers can be woven into a marketable fabric.
"You have to acknowledge that you don't know how the fiber is going to behave," Howland said. "You have to let it teach you how to work with it, and that takes time."
For Howland, working with the silk is in a way bringing the company full circle.
"We started using nylon to replace silk," he said. "Now we're back to working with silk."