Bulletproof vests made of spider silk spun by genetically modified silkworms may sound like the far-fetched product of a superhero movie. But they're the very real work of Ann Arbor-based Kraig Biocraft Laboratories, which is expanding into Vietnam to support its production of recombinant spider silk.
The company's technology injects the genetic "recipe" for spider silk into silkworm egg sacs, and the modified silkworms munch on mulberry leaves, transforming them into the company's spider silk recipe. Those transgenic silkworms then give birth to more silkworms already programmed with the spider silk "cookbook," says Kraig COO Jon Rice.
"Silkworms make 150,000 metric tons of silk per year, and spiders make very flexible silk but don't make a lot of it," Rice says.
In early July Kraig opened a wholly-owned subsidiary, Prodigy Textiles, in order to be allowed to operate in Vietnam. It then signed three agreements with local farming cooperatives in Vietnam's Quang Nam province. Under these agreements the farmers will produce the mulberry necessary to support the company’s recombinant spider silk production.
These agreements will allow the company to scale up its operations, Rice says, since Vietnam already has the climate, the knowledge, and the infrastructure to create silk year-round.
"We looked at several countries, but Vietnam was head of the list," Rice says. "They are about (No.) five or six globally in annual silk production. The knowledge is there, the equipment is there, the facilities are there. All they need is our better-performing silkworm."
Kraig founder and CEO Kim Thompson's interest in figuring out how to make transgenic silkworms turn mulberries into fabric as tough as spider silk goes back to the early 2000s. But it wasn't until 2016 that Kraig got its first contract from the U.S. Army to see how its materials might function as a protective textile.
"We make vests out of Kevlar, because it has high strength and toughness," Rice says. "Spider silk is about 10 times stretchier, and pretty close to Kevlar in terms of strength. Stretch plus flexibility equals toughness, and our spider silk outperforms even the best synthetics because of that flexibility."
The spider silk material is also lightweight and "biocompatible," Rice says. For instance, if a soldier receives an injury that involves high heat, like an encounter with an IED or a vehicle rollover, synthetic plastic fibers will heat and melt into the wound, but spider silk will not.
Rice says the market for the company's material is much broader than the military, and could include medical uses, including skin grafts. He says the company already has the technology, the production capability, and the market for its materials. The question, until now, has been how to scale up production.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at email@example.com.
Photos courtesy of Kraig Biocraft Laboratories.