Spider Silk Polymerization System Design

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Faculty Mentor

David Britt


Spider silk proteins are a naturally-derived material with exciting applications in numerous fields. The protein components of spider silk make it a suitable platform for modifications to make smart materials with known functions. The largest obstacle for the commercial production of spider silk is harvesting usable spider silk. Spiders in communities become territorial and can become cannibalistic, making large-scale spider silk farming from spiders an inefficient method. Alternatively, transferring spider silk protein genes into microorganisms and overexpressing the proteins can result in significant yields of spider silk protein. However, due to the lack of a spinneret or similar structure in the microorganisms to polymerize the silk proteins into usable threads, production of spider silk proteins from microorganisms has its own challenges for commercial viability. Current techniques for the production, isolation, and modification of spider silk proteins using microorganisms have shown promising results, but polymerization methods must be refined to produce usable threads. Polymerization is a process where several single proteins form secondary chemical bonds and structures. Several of the advantageous material properties of spider silk are the result of secondary chemical structures. We intend to design and optimize a system to induce polymerization of spider silk proteins into threads. Series filtration, microbead control, fluorescent imaging, shear force manipulation, ion concentration manipulation, and microfluidics will be investigated as possible techniques to polymerize spider silk. While spider silk is the focus of this design, the mechanisms for polymerization are similar in other proteins and design elements could be applied to polymerize additional proteins.

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