A bio-art project to create bulletproof skin has given a Utah State researcher even more hope his genetically engineered spider silk can be used to help surgeons heal large wounds and create artificial tendons and ligaments.
Researcher Randy Lewis and his collaborators gained worldwide attention recently when they found a commercially viable way to manufacture silk fibers using goats and silkworms that had spider genes inserted into their makeup. Spider silk is one of the strongest fibers known and five times stronger than steel. Lewis’ fibers are not that strong but much stronger than silk spun by ordinary worms. With Lewis’ help, Dutch artist Jalila Essaidi conducted an experiment weaving a lattice of human skin cells and silk that was capable of stopping bullets fired at reduced speeds.
“Randy and I were moved by the same drive I think, curiosity about the outcome of the project,” Essaidi said in an email interview. “Both the artist and scientist are inherently curious beings.”
Lewis thought the project was a bit off the wall at first, Essaidi acknowledged.
“But in the end, what curious person can say no to a project like this?” she said.
Essaidi, who used a European genetics-in-art grant to fund her project at the Designers & Artists 4 Genomics Awards, initially wanted to use Lewis’ spider silk from goats to capitalize on the “grotesque factor” of the mammal-spider combination. But Lewis didn’t yet have enough of the spider goat silk to send hundreds of yards to Essaidi. So he sent her spools of silk from silkworms he had genetically engineered in a fashion similar to the goats.
Essaidi initially intended to fire .22 caliber bullets at the “skin” stretched in a frame. But she decided to place the “skin” on a special gelatin block used at the Netherlands Forensic Institute. Using a high-speed camera, she showed a bullet fired at a reduced speed piercing the skin woven with an ordinary worm’s silk But when tested with Lewis’ genetically engineered worm’s silk grafted between the epidermis and dermis, the skin didn’t break. Neither was able to repel a bullet fired at normal speed from a .22 caliber rifle.