Thursday, September 03, 2009
Bioengineered fiber worms
I had this crazy thought about a process that would be fun to explore. I was reading an old article on the space elevator concept, and all the difficulty with the material science involved. Making the carbon nanotubes as a composite seems difficult. But biological things don't seem to have too many troubles making nanostructures in mass quantity. So my thought of approaching the material would be to start with silkworms. They're easy enough to grow in captivity, and the process of collecting silk from them is pretty refined and well understood. The next step would be comparing the silk of the silkworm with that of various spider species. Do the full comparison of the tensile strength and see if there are any major differences. If the results are remarkable enough in the spider's favor, then try and transfer the spider silk genes to the silkworm. If you can get worms that produce easily unrolled and higher strength spider-type silk, you've got step one down. And even if you can't get step two - it may still have some remarkable materials applications. Step two would be to figure out if there are any biological processes that can produce carbon nanotubes in a consistent manner. Now imagine if you could put in the genetics to also produce these tubes right in the silk producing glands of the spider-silk silkworms? If the tubes are sizable enough and numerous enough, suddenly you have a grade-A nanomaterial that can be produced in large quantities just by breeding and cultivating silkworms. It would be an even bigger materials science breakthrough. And then one of the bigger hurdles to getting the space elevator would be solved.