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NOVA’s ‘Making Stuff’ Explores Spinning of Steel-Strength Spider Silk

January 19, 2011 at 4:51 PM EST
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NOVA and New York Times technology columnist David Pogue look at innovative technologies for stronger, sleeker future products, including Kevlar, nanotubes and "invisibility cloaks."
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight: producing the building blocks of the future.

New York Times technology reporter David Pogue has teamed up with NOVA for a new series that will look at innovative technologies and materials.

In tonight’s premiere, he focuses on “Making Stuff: Stronger.”

Here’s an excerpt.

DAVID POGUE, personal technology correspondent, The New York Times: Spider silk has been shown to have more tensile strength than steel and Kevlar. It can stretch to 140 percent of its length without breaking and remains flexible even in extreme cold.

It’s also so lightweight that a mere pound of the stuff could form a single strand long enough to stretch around the equator. But could we ever harvest enough to put it to use?

I paid a visit to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where I met Nicholas Godley.

This is it. This is your baby?

NICHOLAS GODLEY, fashion designer: This is the big one.

DAVID POGUE: … who enlisted the help of more than a million spiders to make this breathtaking piece of fabric.

NICHOLAS GODLEY: It’s the largest-known textile and sample or piece of spider silk in the world.

DAVID POGUE: To truly appreciate this remarkable material, you have to feel it. The main piece is so valuable, it’s off-limits, even to its creator. But Nicholas has brought a smaller sample.

It feels really, really, really soft, like animal wool or something.

NICHOLAS GODLEY: I challenge you to break off this piece.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID POGUE: I’m going break before it does.

OK, it doesn’t break. It’s like pulling a strand of steel. Wow.

It’s beautiful, and it’s super strong. Could we ever put spider silk to practical use?

NICHOLAS GODLEY: It’s very difficult, obviously, to do this on a commercial scale. And it took 1,063,000 spiders roughly to make.

DAVID POGUE: Geez.

NICHOLAS GODLEY: It takes about 20 minutes for each spider. And they produce about 400 yards of thread.

DAVID POGUE: Each thread was pulled by hand from a spider’s spinneret. It took four years and millions of strands to weave this 11-foot-long masterpiece. Its rarity is a testament to the sheer difficulty of harvesting this material.

But that may soon change, thanks to this guy.

RANDY LEWIS, molecular biologist, University of Wyoming: So, here’s where we keep our spiders. We have special little cages for them in this room.

DAVID POGUE: Spider central, huh? Whoa. It’s not funny! Not funny.

So, you’re now an official Spider Man affiliate.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID POGUE: This is Randy Lewis, a biologist at the University of Wyoming who’s stuck on spider silk.

Wow.

RANDY LEWIS: This is a golden orb weaver.

DAVID POGUE: Golden orb weaver?

RANDY LEWIS: You just cup your hand and get behind her.

DAVID POGUE: Why is she making web right now?

RANDY LEWIS: Because she’s — she wants to make sure, if she falls, she catches herself.

DAVID POGUE: So, she’s constantly spinning out that dragline?

RANDY LEWIS: When — whenever they move, they leave the dragline behind. That’s kind of where it got its name.

DAVID POGUE: Randy has been fascinated by the amazing properties of dragline silk for 15 years. And he knows all too well the difficulty of extracting silk from spiders.

So he set out to find a way to mass-produce the stuff, in hopes of revolutionizing the world of strong materials.

Wyoming is ranch country, so when Randy began to consider how to solve the problem, his thoughts turned to livestock. He figured maybe he could combine a little old-fashioned animal husbandry with the emerging science of genetic engineering. Now, thanks to Randy, these goats have just a little bit of spider in them.

Transgenic, that’s the word for — for what these goats are?

RANDY LEWIS: Right. It means that they have a gene from another organization that’s been put into their chromosomes.

DAVID POGUE: Genes are sections of DNA that contain the encoded instructions for making proteins. Scientists identified the two genes in spider DNA that make silk. They copied one of the genes and spliced it into the DNA of goats, so that they would make spider-silk protein in their milk.

JEFFREY BROWN: Spoiler alert: The scientists eventually turned those proteins into strands of silk that are stronger than steel.

And you can see it all happen on NOVA’s program “Making Stuff: Stronger” tonight on most PBS stations.