Researchers Develop “Bulletproof Skin” from Spider Silk

August 28, 2011

3:30 pm

Bulletproof vests have been around for decades, but skin that can stop bullets has thus far only been the stuff of science fiction. Now, a new bio-art project headed by Dutch artist Jalila Essaidi is making “bulletproof skin” a reality.

In collaboration with Forensic Genomics Consortium Netherlands, researchers have created a lattice of human skin cells and genetically engineered spider silk that can stop .22 calibre bullets fired at reduced speeds. The “skin” has even shown potential to heal wounds.

The bulletproof skin’s success originated from the work of researcher Randy Lewis. Lewis and his team at Utah State University garnered international attention when they founded a commercially viable method of manufacturing spider silk fibers using silkworms and goats implanted with spider genes.

Mirroring the process of producing genetically engineered food, mixing the two species involves extracting a gene from the spider, melding it with bacteria, and inserting it into the goat’s egg. The new goat can then produce the “spider silk” in its milk – silk that when woven is 5 times stronger than steel and many times lighter.

Aptly named Project 2.6g 329m/s (the maximum weight and velocity a Type 1 bulletproof vest can withstand from a .22 calibre Long Rifle Bullet), the goal of the project was to replace keratin, the protein responsible for the toughness of human skin, with this spider silk protein. Research has already shown that the spider silk is compatible with the human body.

A high-speed camera showed that a bullet fired at reduced speed pierced skin woven with ordinary silk. However, when tested again with Lewis’ genetically engineered silk grafted between the epidermis and dermis, the skin didn’t break. You can watch the bullet firing into the skin sample below.

“It [the bullet] still ended up 2 inches into the torso so it would not have saved your life. But without a doubt the most exciting part for us is the fact that they were able to recreate the skin on top of our fibers. It’s something we haven’t done,” said Lewis to CBS.

According to Lewis, the bulletproof skin shows much potential for covering wounds, treating severe burn victims, and creating artificial tendons and ligaments. The material’s strength and elasticity would enable surgeons to replace large amounts of human skin without worrying about ripping existing skin out – a major advantage over small skin grafts.

Lewis plans to begin animal testing with the genetically engineered spider silk within the next two years. You can read more about the project on Essaidi’s blog.

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Trisha Cruz is a Tech Cocktail intern with a passion for writing and design. She is a rising third year at the University of Virginia majoring in Media Studies and minoring in Studio Art. Follow her at: @heytrisha

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