If you feed silkworms enough paper clips, will they spin you a new car? Probably not, but a company announced last week that it has genetically modified silkworms to spin thread strong enough to be woven into reliable body armor. Can a tiny spun Fiat be that far off?
Today’s conventional military and police body armor – as well as racing sails, bicycle tires and many other products – is made from the synthetic fiber Kevlar, which is said to be five times stronger that steel and almost as inflexible.
Ours is almost as strong and 10 times more elastic.
Jon Rice is the CEO of Kraig Biocraft Laboratories, the company which genetically modified silkworms to spin Dragon Silk, a product that the U.S. Army awarded a contract for to be tested in future body armor suits.
The genetic modification has a graphic novel spin. Spider silk is actually 10 times stronger than that of silkworms and twice as elastic, but the arachnids are a poor choice for new applications because of their cannibalistic tendencies. Enter the docile silkworms. In 2011, Kraig scientists isolated the DNA responsible for silk proteins in spider and placed them in silkworms which began producing the same tough silk, now called Dragon Silk.
While refining this process, Kraig engineers recently found that some of these silkworms passed the super-silk trait to their offspring, making it 1,000 times more cost-effective (the cost is down to $300 per kilo). That puts it in the price range of the U.S. Army, whose Soldier Protection and Individual Equipment (PM-SPIE) office recently awarded a $99,962 contract to Kraig to develop ballistic shoot packs – 15-inch squares of bulletproof material for testing. If they offer the same protection as Kevlar with improved flexibility (the company touts 40 percent to Kevlar’s 3), a $1 million development contract is waiting for Kraig.
While its military and police benefits are obvious, Kraig is planning other uses for Dragon Silk, including sports apparel.
If you see someone outside the Kraig facility in Ann Arbor, Michigan, holding a butterfly net and a box, it’s just someone who is willing to wait for a woven Fiat.