Bolt Threads: High Tech Clothing from Spider Web Silk
One place where scientists are exploring new innovations is in the area of biomimicry. From sharkskin inspired swimsuits to burr inspired Velcro products, the superior properties exhibited in nature can be recreated or mimicked and then applied to commercial products. One area that hasn’t undergone too many technical innovations in the past century is that of textiles. We hear all the time about smart clothes with built in solar charging that can monitor your health or any other kind of far-fetched invention you can think of like self lacing shoes. The real area we’d like to see innovation in is garment durability and stain resistance.
While companies like Nanotex have been developing stain resistant clothing enabled by nanotechnology since 1998, the area of textile durability doesn’t seem to have many advances made especially if you consider that the entire fashion industry thrives on people who feel the need to define who they are by what they wear, a target that is constantly changing. Why should I have to pay for extra durability in a piece of clothing if I just plan to throw it out and buy a new one in a year’s time? (#FirstWorldProblems). One company that is using synthetic biology to make advancements in the area of synthetic textile engineering is Bolt Threads.
Founded in 2009, Bolt has taken in $40 million so far from investors that include Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund. Bolt is working on engineering the next generation of high-performance fashion fibers that are inspired by the silk that all spiders produce. While not all spiders produce webs, the ones that do build them from some pretty fascinating materials. Take the Darwin’s Bark spider for example which was not discovered until 2009.
This amazing spider can create silk strands that extend up to 82 feet which are built out of the toughest biological material ever studied, around 10 times stronger than Kevlar. If we could create this material ourselves, there seems to be an unlimited number of applications that we could use it for. Yet with all the technological prowess we have today, we still haven’t been able to replicate the molecular structure of spider silk because it is just too complicated.
Then along comes Bolt Threads who decided to create these natural silks by inserting certain genes into yeast to produce large quantities of silk proteins through fermentation using just yeast, sugar and water. This genetically modified yeast can now produce the same silk material that spiders emit from their glands, and once spun can be used to create clothing that is stronger than steel yet soft and supple. The silk comes out as a liquid form but is then spun into fibers. Bolt Threads is now producing these silk fibers at a commercial scale and has trademarked them as “Engineered Silk”. No one else has managed to create engineered silk this way except Bolt Threads.
While silk shirts for men went out of fashion a long time ago, Engineered Silk is expected to look and feel quite different from traditional silk and will be easy to wash and wear. There’s also a green spin here (get it?) which is that 20% of water pollution globally is attributed to textile processing. The Bolt Threads process won’t be contributing to that statistic.
Bolt Threads is pursuing an “Intel inside” business model like Nanotex. Garment manufacturers like Nike will license the right to use Engineered Silk from Bolt Threads and then your Nike running pants will have a tag on it that says “Engineered Silk”. We should expect to see clothing coming out this year using Engineered Silk so as soon as you see it, please let us know!