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Thursday, 04 February 2010 01:06

Artificial silk could be the bee's knees

Australian scientists are striving to make artificial honeybee silk. And, if they accomplish it, human-made insect silk would be made into tough and lightweight products such as textiles, aircraft composites, and artificial tendons.

Australian entomologist Tara D. Sutherland is a CSIRO scientist, along with being the head of its Biomaterials team at CSIRO Entomology. She is also an expert in biomaterials, insect toxicology, genetics, and bioreme diation.

Dr. Sutherland thinks that honeybee silk is the Bee's Knees, as her team makes inroads in the eventual production of artificially produced insect silk.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term 'Bee's Knees,' it means something of the highest quality, such as the comment: "Wow, that's the bee's knees!"

Dr. Sutherland and her CSIRO team (Sarah Weisman, Victoria S. Haritos, Jeffrey S. Church, Mickey G. Huson, Stephen T. Mudie, Andrew J.W. Rodgers, and Geoff J. Dumsday) have accomplished an important step in the eventual production of artificial bee silk.

Production of human-made insect silk is important, which is why its production is being attempted all over the world by various groups of scientist.

The CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) team used recombinant cells of bacterium Escherichia coli (often abbreviated E.coli) to produce the silk proteins.

The silk proteins were then self-assembled into silk-like structures, similar to silk produced by the honey bee (Apis mellifera).

Page two continues with information on the process of making honeybee silk, along with comments from Dr. Sutherland.

Dr. Sutherland states, 'We already knew that honeybee silk fibres could be hand-drawn from the contents of the silk gland so used this knowledge to hand-draw fibres from a sufficiently concentrated and viscous mixture of the recombinant silk proteins.' [CSIRO]

She adds, 'In fact, we had to draw them twice to produce a translucent stable fibre.' [CSIRO]

The scientists are working with honeybee silk rather than silk worms or spiders because of the problems encountered with the latter two.

The abstract to their paper states, 'Transgenic production of silkworm and spider silks as biomaterials has posed intrinsic problems due to the large size and repetitive nature of the silk proteins. In contrast the silk of honeybees (Apis mellifera) is composed of a family of four small and non-repetitive fibrous proteins.'

Apis mellifera is a particular type of honeybee (or, honey bee) called commonly the European honey bee or western honey bee.

The CSIRO media release 'Artificial bee silk a big step closer to reality' states, 'They have hand-drawn fine threads of honeybee silk from a 'soup' of silk proteins that they had produced transgenically.'

Page three continues with some of the future and important uses for honeybee silk.

Their abstract states, 'We report recombinant production and purification of the four full-length unmodified honeybee silk proteins in Escherichia coli at substantial yields of 0.2-2.5 g/L [grams per liter]. Under the correct conditions the recombinant proteins self-assembled to reproduce the native coiled coil structure.'

What is important here is the fact that the silk-like threads produced were ''¦ as strong as threads drawn from the honeybee silk gland'¦.' [CSIRO]

The accomplishment is considered ''¦ a significant step towards development of coiled coil silk biomaterials.' [CSIRO]

In fact, Dr. Sutherland declares, 'It means that we can now seriously consider the uses to which these biomimetic materials can be put.' [CSIRO]

They conclude in their abstract, 'Using a simple biomimetic spinning system we could fabricate recombinant silk fibers that replicated the tensile strength of the native material.'

Some of the possible uses for artificially made insect silk includes, ''¦ tough, lightweight textiles, high-strength applications such as advanced composites for use in aviation and marine environments, and medical applications such as sutures, artificial tendons and ligaments.'

Page four concludes within information on the journal article highlighting their accomlishment, along with further facts and information on Dr. Sutherland's work at producing honeybee silk.

Their accomplish has been written up in the March 2010 issue of the journal Biomaterials.

Their Biomaterials paper is entitled 'Honeybee silk: Recombinant protein production, assembly and fiber spinning' (doi: 10.1016/j.biomaterials.2009.12.021).

Dr. Sutherland and her team have been working at making honeybee silk for a long time.

In fact, over two  years ago Dr. Sutherland was written up in ScienceDaily.com.

Please read the November 27, 2007 ScienceDaily story "Bees Are The New Silkworms," which tells some of their story.

Sutherland states within the article: 'Most people are unaware that bees and ants produce silk but they do and its molecular structure is very different to that of the large protein, sheet structure of moth and spider silk."

"The cocoon and nest silks we looked at consist of coiled coils - a protein structural arrangement where multiple helices wind around each other. This structure produces a light weight, very tough silk.'


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