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Isolation, and expression in plants, of novel spider silk genes - NF0511

Spider silks have significantly superior performance characteristics over any man-made fibres. Weight for weight spider silk fibres are 5 times tougher than Kevlar and, if they can be produced in quantity, it is expected that they will supersede Kevlar fibres in many applications. So far, this potential remains unrealised because of an inability to produce sufficient silk proteins for spinning to form fibres. The aim of the proposed work is to produce spider silk proteins in commercial quantities (this is not possible in spiders themselves). Plants provide an ideal vehicle for the production of the spider silk protein and could form the basis of a substantial new industrial crop, as well as the associated fibre-spinning industry, for the UK.

The proposed work is pivotal to the progress of a collaboration between three UK research groups, all leaders in their respective fields. Together, we have the expertise to solve the problem of producing spider silk proteins on an industrial scale (in crops) and spinning these silks into high performance fibres. This has been a goal of industry for more than 20 years, and success would have great wealth-creating potential for both UK agriculture and industry.

Our aim is to produce recombinant spider silks in a field crop. We will investigate a number of production strategies to identify the most suitable approach. Our favoured crop is field beans where previous work indicates we should be able to produce between 5-10% of total seed protein as spider silk. Field beans are about 25% protein on a dry weight basis. Typical yields for the UK are around 3.5 tonnes per hectare. This indicates that we will be able to produce around 50-100 kg of silk protein per hectare. Currently, world Kevlar production exceeds 25,000 tonnes annually (Chemical Business Newsbase,[Chemical Fibers International] p.161, May 2000) with market values between $50 and $75 per kilo. Clearly, there is the potential for the development of a crop of significant size and high value.

In this project we will isolate genes encoding novel spider silks with properties superior to those previously characterised and free of existing IP. We will express these proteins in plants in order to produce sufficient protein for trial spinning and silk production. As well as generating IP in the form of novel genes and technology, this strategic work underlies a potential new agricultural production and industrial manufacturing system for the UK. The project makes use of the newly MAFF-funded Plant Genome Facility in The Centre for Novel Agricultural Products at York.

1. Novel silk genes
To discover novel genes in the form of the cloning of coding sequences of proteins making novel and superior spider silks.
2. Expression of recombinant silk proteins
To develop new industrial products through the expression of coding sequences to produce recombinant protein to be spun into silk.
Project Documents
• Final Report : Isolation, and expression in plants, of novel spider silk genes   (57k)
• Final Report - Annex : Isolation, and expression in plants, of novel spider silk genes   (2276k)
Time-Scale and Cost
From: 2000

To: 2004

Cost: £203,157
Contractor / Funded Organisations
University - York
Arable Farming              
GM Non-Food              
Fields of Study
Non-Food Crops