The silk of a spider’s web is one of nature’s wonder materials – delicate, strong and tougher than steel. One Japanese biotechnology startup has developed a technique to produce synthetic spider silk – and its founder has high hopes for this revolutionary fibre as a sustainable material for the future.
Spiber, the venture company working on the artificial production of spider silk, is based in the city of Tsuruoka in Japan’s Yamagata Prefecture. Since the project’s beginnings at Keio University in 2007, researchers have been investigating the properties and microstructure of spider silk, resulting in the development of a synthetic fibre called QMONOS.
One Man’s Mission
The idea for QMONOS came to Kazuhide Sekiyama during a conversation over drinks, when the topic about world’s strongest insect came up. Intrigued, Sekiyama began reading about spider’s silk, a natural fibre with tensile strength that was higher than steel. He also found out that attempts had been made to artificially replicate the unique substance, but none had ever succeeded. “I knew it would be difficult, but I decided it would be worth it,” said Sekiyama. And so began his mission to create a synthetic version of one of nature’s strongest fibres.
Decoding the Genetic Sequence of Spider Silk
The silk that spiders use to spin their intricate webs is made complex strings of amino acids, which we call protein. The production of QMONOS involves genetically modifying bacteria so they can be cultured to produce proteins similar to those made by spiders. The researchers at Spiber have spent years painstakingly working their way through tens of thousands of combinations to find the best genetic sequences and culture conditions. This required them to invest at least 10 per cent of the initial start-up cost on state-of-the-art computers for their research.
The timing of the project was perfect in terms of developments in IT and biotechnology.
“If we’d started two years earlier, it wouldn’t have been technically possible; and if we were two years later, we’d have been overtaken by a competitor,” said Sekiyama. The venture benefited from the expertise of top engineers from the Japanese textile and fermentation industries who, impressed with Sekiyama’s ideals, were generous with their knowledge.
A New Generation of Materials
Since the production of QMONOS began in 2008, the company has increased productivity by a factor of 4,500, and reduced the production cost to 1/53,000 of what it was. The first prototype made using QMONOS is the “Moon Parka,” a special edition of The North Face’s “Antarctica” outdoor jacket.
Spiber is currently investigating the use of QMONOS in other applications, including components for the automotive industry. They also hope it will be used in the medical industry to create artificial blood vessels.
“It’s a big step in manufacturing, as it does not rely on petroleum,” said Sekiyama. This is a major advantage of QMONOS and other synthetic proteins: no petroleum or fossil fuels are used in the production process, making it a sustainable material.
QMONOS is just the start of the challenge. Spiber’s aim is to introduce proteins as a platform for a new generation of materials. Through different combinations of 20 naturally occurring amino acids, it is possible to produce tailor proteins to hold a huge variety of properties.
Spiber is a company founded on one man’s dream of a better world. Through a combination of technological innovation, inspiration from nature and a lot of hard work, the goal of understanding and mastering proteins is close to becoming a reality. But the challenge of creating a sustainable society that does not rely on fossil fuels has only just begun.