“And it was really the 'Eureka!' moment.” – Jeffrey Turner, CEO of Nexia Biotechnologies[1]

Prior to 2002, the spider silk industry was based solely out of individual laboratories that were studying the useful material. The work done by these laboratories was painstaking and incredibly inefficient due to the method of extracting the spider silk. These laboratories used large quantities of spiders, extracting trace amounts of thread from each individual; with no ability or mean to extract mass amounts [2]. In 2002, Nexia Biotechnologies, a Canadian firm, developed a way to produce spider silk in larger quantity, more efficiently and voided the use of spiders all together (a trend that would continue for industrial purposes). During the following years, more companies investigating spider silk would come into existence and while other companies would focus their research into the promising field. In late 2011, the German firm AMSilk would be the first company to claim that they have discovered a method to produce spider silk on an industrial scale [3].


Nexia Biotechnologies | Kraig Biocraft Laboratories Biotechnology | AMSilk | Future Directions

Nexia Biotechnologies

In 2002, Nexia Biotechnologies developed a method that would pave the way for other spider silk research groups to produce silk by untraditional means. Biomimicry would be the method Nexia would exploit in order to produce their silk in larger and easier quantities over extracting thread from individual spiders. Biomimicry refers to the emulation of biological processes in order to innovate, for the advancement of human technologies [4]. The researchers at Nexia understood that the traditional means of extracting spider silk were too inefficient to do on a mass or even slightly larger scale. They determined that the best course of action was to extract genes from the dragline silk, develop a soluble recombinant and reinsert said genetic sequence into a mammalian cell, of a goat [5]. The genes from the dragline silk were known as ADF-3/MaSpII and MaSpI [6].

This method was simply step one in a long phase of silk spinning however. The Nexia team had only determined an efficient mean of producing the spider silk protein in a water soluble format, and not how to change the liquid into silk fibers. They combined their research and means with US Army researchers, whom had previous knowledge of fiber spinning from liquid protein solutions [7]. With the combined efforts of the two groups, the first silk spun without spiders had been accomplished. Nexia would go on to insert the spider silk genes into single cell goat eggs, which when matured; female goats would have the resulting transgenic genes and the ability to produce the silk protein solution in their milk.

The move from spiders to goats had severally helped the development of the field, where a single laboratory would no longer have to home thousands of individual spiders (all within their own habitat, due to their territorial nature). Instead, goat farms could be set up that were composed of the transgenic, spider silk producing goats. Nexia’s farm includes about fifteen hundred transgenic goats [8]. The silk produced by Nexia Biotech, was named BioSteel.

Kraig Biocraft Laboratories Biotechnology

PiggyBac Method Used by KBLB (19)

Kraig Biocraft Laboratories Technology is a biological engineering firm that is focusing efforts in developing an efficient means of developing a recombinant spider silk on a large scale [10]. September 29th, 2010, KBLB (Kraig Biocraft Laboratories Technology abbreviation) was able to genetically engineer silkworms with the ability of producing artificial spider silk {11]. KBLB would go on to successfully create over 20 variants of with the transgenic ability to produce artificial spider silk [12].

Kraig Biocraft Laboratories Technology uses a method to produce the genetically altered silkworms known as the PiggyBac Transposon method [13]. The PiggyBac (abbreviated PB) transposons are DNA transposons that are mobilized through the genome through a cut and paste method. This is done through the PiggyBac transposase which is able to cut and paste the PB flanked transposon in and out of genetic sequence [14]. The newly cut transposon may then be integrated back into the genome at TTAA sites [15]. The method of PiggyBac exceeds other genetic recombination methods, such as the widely used Sleeping Beauty method, due to the lack of genetic altering and the resulting footprint mutations [16].

This method was combined effort from the University of Notre Dame and KBLB. Within a year, KBLB had signed deals with both Sigma-Aldrich and the University of NotreDame which would allow them to further develop the silkworm spider silk technology.This led to the development of more spider silk producing silk worm variants [17]. The issue still concerning KBLB is the fact the spider silk produced from the silkworms does not match the strength of regular spider silk, where the genetically altered silk worms produce spider silk that is 80% as strong as natural spider silk.In early 2012, KBLB along with the University of Notre Dame released the first scientific journal article describing the work done to produce the spider silk which noted the silkworms were producing silks that were 96-98% silk worm and only 2-4% spider silk [18].


AMSilk is a company founded through the Technische Universität München in 2008.AMSilk is the first polymer research firm which has claimed to be able to produce spider silk in an industrial and global scale [20]. The actual process involved in the formation of Spider silk is based off bacterial genomics and bacterial culturing. AMSilk, a company solely created to investigate and develop the field of spider silk technology; based their technology in similar fashion as Nexia and KBLB, in that spider silk genes are isolated and inserted into other organisms for large scale production. In September of 2011, along with the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research joined together to a spider silk spinning process that would enable global scale spider silk development [21].

Spider Silk proteins ADF3 and ADF4, Matrices (25)

AMSilk aimed to investigate dragline silk, the most popular and known of the spider silks. Through investigation and prior research the isolation of two proteins of dragline silk, known as ADF3 and ADF4 were determined [22]. It was determined that the amorphous matrix of the proteins is responsible for the extensibility of dragline silk [23]. Knowing the genetic composition of these proteins, the genes responsible for the synthesis of dragline silk was introduced into the bacteria E. coli.The introduction into E. coli was a method that at first seems unlikely, however turned out to be the most innovative and productive of all transgenic spider silk technology. The bacteria itself, is used in a bio-reactor [24]. This was previously a way to produce insulin and even human tissues, in which a organism or enzymatic components are used to create these products. The E. coli bacteria is used to create the spider silk, in addition, the numbers of the bacteria grow rapidly and thus so does the resulting spider silk.
The product of the E. coli is not formed spider silk itself, but instead the bacteria form a protein. Much like the Nexia experiments with goats. The issue again arises with the cultivating of the protein into the desired spider silk. It is why the partnership between AMSilk and Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research came into existence. The Fraunhofer Institute is a leading developer of polymers, which would result in the development of spinning processes that would mass produce the protein into usable dragline spider silk.

Future Directions

Each of the three major companies (Nexia, KBLB & AMSilk) each have varied directions in which their companies are striving for. Nexia, content with its medium scale goat milk protein spider silk was currently developing its Biosteel brand of high-strength based fibers. The fibers will focus on material implications such as fishing lines, as well as larger fabrics such as parachutes. In addition, Nexia Biosteel has mentioned further investigation into spider silk in the medical field, such as ligament repair. In 2009, Nexia Biotechnologies was bought by a Chinese firm and the steady decline of research and achievements as well as the sale of assets increased.

KBLB is solely attempting to mass produce the spider silk fabric. The company is finding further breakthroughs in creating fibers that can be used in material industry.

AMSilk is the company that is developing further applications for spider silk. In total, their ideas of spider silk have expanded to the medical field, in both repair (such as Nexia) and have already created new forms of drug delivery via spider silk. The company hopes to advance its spider silk production so that it can be used as a material such a Kevlar.

[1,2, 7, 8, 9]Gould P. 2002. Exploiting Spiders’ Silk. Materials today. 5(12): 42-47
[3] Kraig Biocraft Laboratories Technology [internet]. C2008-2010. Lansing (MIS): The European Union; [Cited 2012 March 15]. Kraig Biocraft news page and archieve. Available from:http://www.kraiglabs.com/index.html
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[5,6]Lazaris A, Arcidiacono S, Huang Y, Zhou JF, Duguay F, Chretien N, Welsh EA, Soares JW, Karatzas CN. 2002.Spider Silk Fibers Spun from Soluble Recombinant Silk Produced in Mammalian Cells. Science. 295: 472
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[22 -25] SpiessmK., Lammel, A., Scheibel, T. 2010. Structural Characterization and functionalization of engieneered spider silk films. Sott. Matter. 6: 4168-4174