A web of possibilities: Utah researcher uses goats to make one of the strongest known substances

Published: Tuesday, July 5 2011 5:00 p.m. MDT

LOGAN — Utah State University professor Randy Lewis's goats look and behave like most other goats: They nibble on alfalfa and, if you're not careful, they might nibble on your clothes. But these goats could hold the key to revolutionizing everything from tendon replacements and stronger parachutes to safer airbags.

How can these goats achieve such amazing things? Lets just say, they have a little bit in common with comic book legend Peter Parker.

Lewis's goats are transgenic, meaning they have two key genes that allow a spider to weave their silk inserted into their genetic code. The result is goats that produce milk that contain spider silk proteins.

Nicknamed "spider man" by his fellow USU scientists, Lewis' first-of-its-kind research has gained him international attention. His work has been featured in top science journals as well as National Geographic and Time magazines. He was also featured on PBS's NOVA and the Discovery Channel. He has been featured on European television and more recently in Canada.

Lewis recently brought his research from the University of Wyoming after USU lured him with better facilities and funding. The university was able to recruit Lewis through the USTAR program: the Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative. USTAR is a long-term, state-funded program that invests in science research with innovation and commercial potential.

Researchers and biochemical companies have long thought spider silk to be an ideal material for countless applications. It's stronger than steel and as stretchy as nylon. But milking and caring for them is much easier than working with spiders.

"They're territorial and cannibalistic," Lewis said. "Scientists have known since the late 1800s that farming spiders isn't possible — spiders tend to eat other spiders."

It took about 80 people four years to harvest enough spider silk to weave a half-million-dollar golden tapestry. The 11-by-4-foot tapestry was displayed at the New York Museum of Natural History in 2009. Made by artists in Madagascar, the threads were harvested from over a million spiders, according to the museum. The tapestry is only one of two spider silk textiles known in the world.

While amazing, harvesting silk from spiders by hand is simply not commercially viable. Lewis has experimented with inserting spider silk genes in E.coli bacteria, alfalfa and silk worms. Lewis said bacteria can produce silk a lot faster but because of their tiny size, they don't produce as much. Silk worms produce silk that is only partially spider silk and is not as strong. So he settled on goats.

"It takes goats six months to mature. In six months they have babies and you're getting milk," he said. "Also, they're pretty docile, they certainly become acclimated to humans very rapidly."

Initially Lewis teamed up with a Canadian company that produced the first goats. "We provided the genes and they provided the tech to put it in the goat." Unfortunately, the company went under and Lewis's team was stuck with a problem. "We made two very long trips to Canada to bring them back down. First to Wyoming and then here to Logan."

Currently the herd of special goats is at about 36.

USU officials say they are excited to have such a renowned scientist bring his work to a Utah university.

"We are pleased Randy has joined the USTAR facility," said Robert Behunin, vice president for Commercialization and Regional Development. He said that the core of USU faculty specializing in science and engineering and the new USTAR BioInnovations Center will provide Lewis with great support. "The commercial applications of Randy's research are far-reaching and have enormous potential," Behunin said.

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