Spiders Could Fix Your Broken Bones

Study says silk screws are superior

OutsideOnline; spider, silk, broken bones

This friendly fellow may one day greet you at the ER.     Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Broken bones and compound fractures often lead to the insertion of metal plates and screws, a painful process that requires two surgeries and carries the risk of infection and swelling. Fortunately, a better alternative might be on the horizon, courtesy of our good friend the spider.

A paper published in Nature Communications outlines plans for bone screws made not from steel but from silk, the very same kind produced by spiders and silkworms. Rather than opening you up and ushering the critters inside to do their work—a nightmare scenario that should be reserved for history's greatest villains—the silk is harvested and concentrated, forming a substance that, ounce for ounce, is stronger than steel.

In addition to being stronger than their steel brethren, silk screws can conform to fit the repair site and carry a lower risk of infection and inflammation. The only problem is harvesting the stuff.

Spiders tend to kill and eat each other when kept in large numbers, and they don't produce silk at a constant rate. Companies looking to take advantage of spider silk for everything from construction to cosmetics are searching for alternative methods of gathering the prized material. One possibility is through bacteria. AMSilk, a German firm, has found a way to manufacture silk protein using modified E. coli bacterium. Silk genes are inserted into the bacteria, which alters its growth process so the bacteria begins to grow spider silk protein instead.

Meanwhile, Randy Lewis, a biology professor at Utah State University, has begun using genetically modified goats that produce spider silk protein in their milk. "The goats produce the protein when they are lactating," says Lewis. "We purify the proteins from the milk, dry it down, reconstitute it up, and get the material we can spin into fibers." The university is currently planning to move Lewis's operation into a new 70,000-square-foot facility.

The future is now, people.

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