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USU Opens New Synthetic Spider Silk Facility

Evan Hall
Attendees at the grand opening of the USTAR Bioproducts Scale Up facility were given a tour of the laboratory.

Thursday saw the opening of the USTAR Bioproducts Scale Up facility on the Innovation Campus of Utah State University. The facility was designed for the mass production of material and chemicals derived from renewable biological materials. One of the major areas of interest at the research facility will be synthetic spider silk.

According to Scott Hinton, Director of the Synthetic Biomanufacturing Institute at USU, synthetic spider silk derived from the silk of the banana spider has a wide variety of applications.

“The nice thing about the spider silk protein is that it has so many different properties. It can be really strong, it can be really elastic, which gives us a lot of flexibility,” Hinton said. “From that we can make fibers like you see in clothes or something strong like a bullet proof vest. That’s the beauty of it. We have that flexibility. It just allows all kinds of new markets to open up.”

One of the short-term goals of the research team is vaccine stabilization. The use of spider silk can help spread access to vaccines around the world, said Justin Jones, lab manager at the new facility.

“One of the other really near-term things is vaccine stabilization. Something we never thought about. Now, we’ve got some preliminary data that [says], if you mix a vaccine and our spider silk, you no longer have to keep it cold,” Jones said. “At 80 to 90 degrees [Fahrenheit], it doesn’t break down. So, now you can ship vaccines all over the world just with the addition of a little spider silk.”

The spider silk gene was first cloned a quarter century ago. Randy Lewis, the USTAR Professor of Biology at USU, said that his team is excited to do more impactful research.

“We actually cloned the first spider silk gene 25 years ago this year. The lead up to this has been a very long time,” Lewis said. “For us this is really exciting because from the very beginning, my team has recognized that we had something that would have an impact on society one way or another.”

The new facility will allow researchers to create significantly larger amounts of synthetic spider silk than before.