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Superstrong Material : BioSteel


Mahatma Gandhi made goat's milk famous in a land of holy

cows. He used to take it daily as an alternative to cow's milk compelled as

he was by bout of dysentery in 1918, though he had vowed to abjure animal

products. Little he would have imagined then that goat's milk at the turn of

century would claim credit of becoming raw material for medical sutures

and fishing lines.

One of the most amazing substances in nature is the light,

flexible, yet incredibly strong material spiders spin out to catch

unsuspecting flies and other insects. The process of producing Spider silk

marks a significant step toward the production of other biomaterials -- and

the beginnings of a new kind of industrial revolution, based on the use of

organic processes instead of minerals.

Spider silk is a unique combination of enormous tensile

strength and elasticity with an ultra-lightweight fiber. It has a tensile

strength of 300,000 pounds per square inch and is both stronger and lighter

than compounds based on steel or petrochemicals. Its impressive properties

have been known for a long time, and people have dreamed of being able to

produce it for their own uses, perhaps the way the ancient Chinese learned

to produce silk from silkworms.

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For many years, scientists have sought a way to mass-produce

this filament. The problem is that arachnids are notoriously anti-social..

They much prefer individual territory to living in social groups. This

greatly complicates the task of producing large quantities of the silk.

“Bio Technology has given the solution”

Scientists at Nexia Biotechnologies Inc. have injected the spider's

gene into a goat named Willow. Willow's milk will be processed so the

protein can be used. This silk thus produced biologically is called

‘Biosteel’, and is twenty times stronger than steel and has a breaking

strength of about three hundred thousand pounds per square inch. It could

be used to create microscopic, super strong sutures for operations. Also, if

woven fine enough it could be strong enough to stop a bullet.

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Spiders, especially the jumping spiders, are known to have

exceptional eyesight brought by four (in some species, three, two, or one)

pairs of simple eyes called ocelli. They're often arranged in varying ways

that aid in determining the spider's species. Spiders have several

appendages that are attached to the cephalothorax (fused head and thorax)

and abdomen. The foremost are a single pair of chelicerae. These are used

during feeding and defense; they contain the fangs and poison glands. The

next set of appendages are a single pair of pedipalps that resemble ery short

legs; these are typically elongated in males and are used during mating.

The next four pairs of appendages are the spider's legs, attached to the

spider's cephalothorax. The legs of some spiders (especially the orb-

weavers) have tiny hooks on the ends that are used for climbing across their

webs and especially while guiding the silk from their spinnerets while

spinning their webs. The last set of appendages range from one to four

pairs of spinnerets that are usually attached at the end of the spider's

abdomen. The spinnerets secrets the silk that spiders use for spinning the

web. Spider makes seven kinds of silk - one to wrap up it's prey, one to

wrap up it's eggs and five to construct web itself. Of these the dragline or

frame silk is of engineering interest as it is strongest of all.

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Superstrong Material : BioSteel


Genetic enhancement is a process that is involved in many forms of

genetic manipulation. In other terms it may be called or considered a form

of gene therapy. Gene therapy is a process that is used to fix defective

genes. Locating a defective gene on the double helix and replacing it with a

normal gene does this. This process could save the lives of millions. People

with incurable genetic diseases like cancer, cystic fibrosis, diabetes,

muscular dystrophy, or even AIDS could be cured with the proper

treatments. There are a few forms of genetic manipulation used in science


Gene splicing is a process of splitting the double helix and

joining another strand of DNA to it. Gene splicing can be used for many

things. One of the major uses is insulin for diabetics. Another use of gene

splicing is to make pig organs more easily

transplanted into humans. Our organs have proteins that act as a sign to

our immune system that tells our white blood cells it is safe. Pig organs

have a different type of protein so our immune system attacks it. Scientists

are trying to make the organs more "human" so they are not so readily

rejected. This could be a wonderful advancement because of the severe

shortage of available organs.

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Superstrong Material : BioSteel

By far, one of the strangest uses of gene splicing is inserting

spider genes into a goat. The most incredible fact is that, the silk a spider

uses to spin its web is one of the strongest materials on the planet.

Recently, the modern tools of biotechnology have offered, for the

first time, the possibility of mass-producing man-made spider dragline silk.

This process has two parts, first isolate the gene from the spider that codes

for the silk protein, then introduce the spider silk gene into a system that

can read the genetic instructions and produce authentic silk proteins. To

date several spider genes have been isolated and well characterized as

expected, the genes are long and repetitive and have proven problematic for

use in manufacturing silk protein. Bacterial and other fermentation systems,

which work well with other recombinant proteins, are inadequate in

producing silk protein. These primitive organisms appear to truncate silk

genes because of their repetitive nature thus leading to shorter silk proteins.

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Superstrong Material : BioSteel


The dragline silk of the Golden Orb-Weaving spider is the

most studied in scientific research. Spider silk is a natural polypeptide,

polymeric protein and is in the scleroprotein group which also encompasses

collagen (in ligaments) and keratin (nails and hair). These are all proteins

which provide structure. The protein in dragline silk is fibroin (M,

200,000-300,000) which is a combination of the proteins spidroin 1 and

spidroin 2. The exact composition of these proteins depends on factors

including species and diet. Fibroin consists of approximately 42% glycine

and 25% alanine as the major amino acids. The remaining components are

mostly glutamine, serine, leucine, valine, proline, tyrosine and arginine.

Spidroin 1 and spidroin 2 differ mainly in their content of proline and





Alanine Glycine

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Structure of spidroin

Spidroin contains polyalanine regions

where 4 to 9 alanines are linked

together in a block. The elasticity of

spider silk is due to glycine-rich

regions where a sequence of five amino

acids are continuously repeated. A 180 0

Structure of Spidroin
turn (β-turn) occurs after each

sequence, resulting in a β-spiral. Capture silk, the most elastic kind,

contains about 43 repeats on average and is able to extend 2-4 times

(>200%) its original length whereas dragline silk only repeats about nine

times and is only able to extend about 30% of its original length. There are

also glycine-rich repeated segments which consist of three amino acids.

These turn after each repeat to give a tight helix and may act as a

transitional strucutre between the polyalanine and spiral regions.

Structure of spider silk

The fluid dope is a liquid crystalline solution where the

protein molecules can move freely but some order is retained in that the

long axis of molecules lie parallel, resulting in some crystalline properties.

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It is thought that the spidroin molecules are coiled

in rod-shaped structures in solution and later

uncoil to form silk.

During their passage through the narrowing

tubes to the spinneret the protein molecules align

and partial crystallisation occurs parallel to the

fibre axis. This occurs through self-assembly of

the molecules where the polyalanine regions link

together via hydrogen bonds to form pleated β-

sheets (highly ordered crystalline regions). These β-sheets act as crosslinks

between the protein molecules and imparts high tensile strength on the silk.

It is not purely coincidence that the major amino acids in

spider silk are alanine and glycine. They are the smallest two amino acids

and do not contain bulky side groups so are able to pack together tightly,

resulting in easier formation of the crystalline regions.

The crystalline regions are very hydrophobic which aids the

loss of water during solidification of spider silk. This also explains why

the silk is so insoluble-water molecules are unable to penetrate the strongly

hydrogen bonded β-sheets.

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The glycine-rich spiral regions of spidroin

aggregate to form amorphous areas and these are

the elastic regions of spider silk. Less ordered

alanine-rich crystalline regions have also been

identified and these are thought to connect the β-

sheets to the amorphous regions. Overall, a

generalised structure of spider silk is considered to

Supermolecular structure of be crystalline regions in an amorphous matrix.

Spider silk
Kevlar has a similar structure.

It is not entirely clear how the protein molecules align and

undergo self-assembly to form silk but it may involve mechanical and

frictional forces that arise during passage through the spider's spinning


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Spider's silk is made up of chains of amino acids. In other

words, it is simply a protein. The two primary amino acids are glycine and

alanine. Spider silk is extremely strong -- it is about five times stronger

than steel and twice as strong as Kevlar of the same weight. Spider silk also

has the ability to stretch about 30-percent longer than its original length

without breaking, which makes it very resilient.

Silk fibers are composed completely of silk proteins, which

have made an irreversible transition from a soluble silk protein solution

inside the spiders' silk gland into an insoluble fiber outside the spider. Silk

is produced within the silk glands of spiders. Spiders produce a number of

different silks with different mechanical properties for use in spinning webs

or forming cocoons. Of these silks the "dragline" or "frame" silk has been

the object of desire for materials engineers because of its extreme

performance mechanical properties, particularly strength

Nexia's proprietary silk production system is an innovative

approach, proven successful in producing the most authentic, man-made

spider silk to date. The result is "BioSteel", a family of spider silk proteins.

Technology relies on the anatomical similarities between the spider silk

gland and goat mammary glands. In both cases, epithelial cells manufacture

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and secrete water soluble, complex proteins in large amounts. The goats

had been genetically modified so their genome includes the DNA necessary

to produce the silk, and once they start lactating the silk will be contained

in the milk.

This "silk milk" will be used to produce a web-like material

called Biosteel. Naturally occurring spider silk is widely recognized as the

strongest, toughest fibre known to man.

Its tensile strength is greater than steel and it is 25 percent

lighter than synthetic, petroleum-based polymers.These qualities will allow

BioSteel to be used in applications where strength and lightness are

essential, such as aircraft, racing vehicles and bullet-proof clothing. Dairy

animals have obvious utility in this application because they have a very

large number of mammary cells. Nexia has the demonstrated ability to put

the spider gene into all the cells of the goats including the mammary gland.

This process termed "Transgenics".

The extreme elasticity of this natural miracle fiber, called

capture silk, comes from long spirals in the protein's configuration.

Figuring out what makes silk stretchy and what makes it strong will

ultimately enable scientists to design genes to control the manufacture of

silks. It is found that capture silk protein, a chain of thousands of amino

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acids, contains regions in which a sequence of five amino acids is repeated

over and over, as many as 63 times.

The researchers suggest that the segments of the protein with

the repeating blocks form long, spring like shapes. At the end of each five-

amino-acid block, the protein links back on itself in a 180° turn. The series

of turns eventually forms a spiral that

"looks exactly like a molecular spring"

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Mass Percent of Amino Acids

Amino Acid
Silk fibroin Wool keratin Spider silk
Glycine 43.8 6.5 42
Alanine 26.4 4.1 25
Glutamine 2.03 16.0
Serine 12.06 9.5
Leucine 0.8 9.7
Valine 3.2 5.5
Proline 1.5 7.2
Tyrosine 10.6 6.1
Arginine 1.05 8.6 Aggregate 30
Isolcucine 1.37 - -
Phenylalacine 1.5 1.6 -
Aspartic acid 3.0 7.27 -
Lysine 0.88 2.5 -
Histidine 0.47 0.7 -
Throconie 1.5 6.6 -
Cystine - 11.8 -
Methionine - 0.35 -
Tryptophane - 0.7 -

Spider dragline silk is known for its remarkable properties of

high strength and exceptional toughness, and therefore the structural

aspects, which bring about these properties, are of great interest to

biopolymer researchers. Measurements of the mechanical properties and

birefringence, an index of molecular order, were performed on dry dragline

fibers from two orb-weaving spiders, Nephila clavipes and Araneus

diadematus. Also, the N.clavipes dragline is not as well plasticized by

water, showing a smaller relative decrease in stiffness and molecular order

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Superstrong Material : BioSteel

(birefringence) upon super contraction. The fibroin genes expressed in the

major ampulate (MA) gland of N. clavipes encodes significantly less

proline than the fibroin genes of A. diadematus. The lower expression of

proline in the dragline silk from N. clavipes would allow the protein

network to form a more ordered non-periodic lattice crystal structure, thus

explaining greater stiffness and increased molecular order.

Insects get entangled in the sticky web, because the

stretchiness of capture silk lets the web oscillate back and forth after the

insect hits it. If the web were stiff, the insect might just bounce off.

Spiders use dragline silk to form the guy lines and framework

for wheel-shaped orb webs. It is stronger than capture silk but less flexible.

In fact, dragline silk is only one-fifth as elastic as capture silk.

Dragline silk proteins and capture silk proteins have similar

turn-forming blocks of amino acids. However, the researchers found that

these blocks repeat an average of 43 times in the capture silk, compared to

only 9 times in the dragline silk. That fivefold difference in length

corresponds to the difference in elasticity between the two proteins.

Biosteel is Bio compatible i.e. it is the substance which body's

defence mechanism dosen't treat it as foreign substance.

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BioSteel in its many different forms may be used in a wide

variety of medical and industrial products.

Medical Devices:

Two segments of the medical device market include:

• Wound closure systems, including vascular wound repair devices,

haemostatic dressings, patches and glues, and sutures; and

• Other medical device products, such as ligament prosthetic devices

represent the future.

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The unmatched toughness of BioSteel is an essential value-

added property, which is expected to reduce the incidence of device failure

and allow for further improvement in device properties (e.g., finer sutures).

Generally speaking, devices that encourage faster patient healing and

reduced complications can find application in the wound closure industry.

Given the anticipated superior properties of BioSteel, it is believed that it

may quickly develop niches in the markets for vascular wound repair

devices, haemostatic dressings and sutures.

Beyond wound closure, markets exist for materials intended

for longer-term implantation into the human body. This market includes

both products intended for permanent implantation and those that are

targeted to be absorbable as normal tissue healing takes place. The

structural properties of spider silk may make it appealing for use as a

component in a wide variety of products.

Industrial Fibers:

High-performance and high-value fibers offer unique combinations

of properties suited to a range of specific technical applications. Industrial

markets include protective clothing (e.g., ballistic protection), speciality

ropes and nets, sporting goods and apparel and performance composites.

Initial industrial niches to be targeted include technical sporting gear such

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as biodegradable fishing line and ballistic protection for military and law

enforcement personnel.

BioSteel performance fibres for soft body armour applications

are also produced. BioSteel has the potential to become the next generation

performance filament because it is expected to be tougher and lighter than

the incumbent fibre, Kevlar. BioSteel fibres are expected to be useful in the

production of cordage products where consumers and industry demand

fibres with a high degree of toughness, strength, flexibility, suppleness or


Bullet Proof Applications

Scientists currently are developing dragline filament for use in

the next generation of bulletproof vests.

Currently, bulletproof vests are made of Kevlar, which

provides a dependable barrier against bullets. Kevlar vests are heavy,

inflexible and hot to wear the wearer suffers a great loss of movement, a

great disadvantage when used by police who often need to react quickly.

Kevlar also absorbs water and is consequently more susceptible to

environmental influences than some other strong materials such as graphite

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base materials. Despite it incredible tensile strength Kevlar also has

relatively poor compressive properties and so there are still improvements,

which can be made. Vests made of dragline filament may resolve these


Protective Nets

For a strand of spider-silk cord the thickness of thumb, the

breaking strength would be several hundred thousands pounds that's

something like a jumbo jet. In deed some observes are speculating that nets

made from spider silk could be used to protect highrise buildings from

attacks like 9/11.


Still, there are many other factors that need to be worked out

before we see bridges built with man-made silk.

For one, the amount of silk-building protein that scientist has

been able to produce has been limited to a few strands. And it is not clear

yet how much protein may be able to be harvested in such a manner.

Biosteel is only 20 percent to 40 percent as strong as natural spider silk.

Optimization of spinning process is necessary which is

currently in progress. Another important hinderance is the Ethical

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Bio-steel -- the end product of a genetic marriage between

spider and goat – promises to revolutionize wound management and blood-

clotting control during surgery and even stop a bullet in war

It is of course a bit early to know where this will lead, but we

live in fast-moving times when technological changes often leap ahead of

the most optimistic imagination. Clearly it advances a new field of

biotechnology -- biomaterials -- which could be not only commercially

viable but also have more appeal to environmentalists than some other

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biotechnology products, since spider silk is both a renewable resource and a

biodegradable material.

In some ways this work recalls the dreams of the social

philosophers of the early 1900s, who speculated about a shift to

"biotechnic" industries in which biological production systems would

replace the inorganic machines of the factory and end (or at least reduce)

reliance on mineral-based materials.

In the iconic movie of 1960's "the graduate" the key word for

the research field of the future is plastics. For the remake of movie in 2003

the word should be spider silk.


Steven B. Warner: ‘Fibre Science’, prentice Hall Englewood cliffs NJ07632

P. No. 18-25.

H Hart, D. J. Hart, L. E. Craine: ‘Organic Chemistry’ S. Chand &

Company Ltd. New Delhi 9th edition P. No. 485-487

Websites: www.Nexiaboitech. com

www. science

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