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New USU facility to produce spider silk in mass quantities

LOGAN — Utah State University is looking to turn its stronger-than-steel spider silk into a product to sell.

Until now, the spider silk could only be produced in limited quantities, but that changed with the new Utah Science Technology and Research Bioproducts Scale Up facility at the university.

For biology professor Randy Lewis, it all started with an idea.

"Our team has always had in mind that we had something to make a product out of and we needed to work to try to make that happen,” he said.

Lewis' research started 28 years ago, moving to USU in 2011. His students keep spiders in the lab to study up close.

"It took me a little while. That first spider-holding was really difficult,” said research student Cameron Copeland. “But now I’ve held them for up to 30, 40 minutes at a time."

The unique properties of the webbing are what really make the difference for some.

"(It's) stretchy or you can make it stronger. You can just increase the tensile strength. You can go through a lot of different things just by manipulating a small code," said researcher Michaela Hugie.

A new production facility will help Lewis and his team mass produce synthetic spider silk — tiny threads that he says pound-for-pound are stronger than steel. There are no animals involved, just two 500-liter fermenters that can produce 300,000 yards of the silk in a 24-hour period. That's about 10 spools worth.

Lewis said they are making five times as much protein than before.

With spooling and other processes, it takes about a week to get the actual material.

Researchers now get most of their spider proteins from the milk of genetically altered goats and bacteria. Lewis said several companies are already interested in seeing what the material can do.

“We are now making films, we’re making coatings, we’re making gels. We make a whole variety of products based on spider silk," Lewis said. “In terms of other applications, we’re looking at coatings for medical products to prevent infection, to prevent clotting.”

The project illustrates a great success story, said Ivy Estabrooke, USTAR executive director.

“Hopefully this is the first of many of those ideas moving from invention through to commercialization,” Estabrooke said.

It's hard to say how the endeavor will work out, but Lewis concludes one thing is for sure: The tiny strands have led to some major discoveries.

"I think, if nothing else, we've really come to appreciate what an amazing organism the spider is," he said.