Spider silk is known for being extremely soft and strong, and it could make long-lasting, lightweight and desirable clothes.
Widmaier pulls a small circular container labeled 1314 from a refrigerator. Some white blobs of yeast cling to its sides. Every four hours, the yeast doubles, he says, and when it’s ready it will go into a fermenter down the hall, where it will be shaken and stirred, in a process similar to brewing beer (but with oxygen added to keep it from becoming alcoholic). “It’s making silk of some sort,” he says with a shrug, noting that Bolt Threads’ data system tracks exactly what’s going on in the thousands of strains the company has tested to date. “One of the coolest things about this is that it’s self-replicating,” he says. “It eats sugar, which costs about 10 cents a pound.”
Lab-grown spider silk currently costs more than comparable silkworm silk, but Bolt Threads expects the cost to decline as it scales up production.
Lab-grown spider silk currently costs more than comparable silkworm silk, but Bolt Threads expects the cost to decline as it scales up production.TIMOTHY ARCHIBALD
Welcome to the world of biomaterials, where entrepreneurs with Ph.D.s in chemistry can order up DNA, grow yeast in small containers, and create lab-made versions of proteins in nature, such as the dragline silk of a giant spider known technically as argiope bruehnicci. One advantage of the lab-grown silk is that it can theoretically be altered into whatever consumers might need it to be — strong and soft and stretchy. While other spider-silk researchers have focused on military and medical applications, Bolt Threads is looking to use the material to make better clothing. The global fashion industry, at roughly $2.5tr, is giant and terrible for the environment: Low-cost synthetic fibers like polyester are polluting the oceans, and even natural fabrics like cotton require large tracts of land and chemicals to produce. Spider silk, by contrast, as a biomaterial, is sustainable.
Timely, incisive articles delivered directly to your inbox.