Your Friendly Neighbourhood Spider Goat

by Danielle Nadin (Staff Writer)

A decade ago, on a little maple farm in rural Quebec, the first spider goats were raised. In a 2002 interview with Nexia Biotechnologies scientists, Times Magazine compared this strange experiment to something “straight out of The Island of Dr. Moreau, H.G. Wells’s dark science-fiction fable of a mad scientist who breeds experimental animals on his private preserve”. Though the name conjures disturbing images of eight-legged goats scuttling through a field, these genetic creations don’t look anything like the supercreatures that they are. Their
cuddly goat faces hide a secret identity: these goats can produce one of the strongest, most lightweight materials in the world, golden orb spider silk protein.

This project was initiated by the Quebec-based company Nexia Biotechnologies, before they went bankrupt in 2009. The goal was to increase productivity of this material that is as strong as steel or Kevlar and has the potential to be used in everything from bridges to bullet-proof vests. The golden orb spiders themselves are too small to produce enough silk to be used on a wide scale. It took seventy workers, a million spiders and four years to produce enough silk to make an 11 by 4 piece of textile that is so rare that it is now displayed in the American Museum of Natural History. The torch has been passed onto researchers at the University of Wyoming, who are succeeding in breeding the genetically modified goats. As soon as they start lactating, the silk protein can be extracted from their milk for use.

There could be more web-slinging in store, as researchers look into alternative silk protein producers, like the alfalfa plant, silkworms, E.coli bacteria, and the creepy hagfish, which naturally produces stretchy, defensive slime that is being investigated by the U.S. military.

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