First spider goats, now bulletproof skin? USU scientist's work used in remarkable experiment

Published: Thursday, Aug. 18 2011 2:32 p.m. MDT

LOGAN — Utah State University researcher Randy Lewis gained worldwide attention earlier this summer for creating "spidergoats" whose milk contains key proteins used to make large quantities of spider silk.

And once again, Lewis is involved in the stuff comic book writers dream of.

Lewis has now helped a team of scientists and artists in Holland conduct an intriguing experiment: using a woven lattice of silk and human skin cells to create a skin that can actually repel bullets.

"In lots of ways it's cool," he said. "The whole point was to make bulletproof skin."

Working with the Netherlands Forensic Institute, Dutch artist Jalila Essaïdi used a European genetics-in-art grant to fund the project.

"It is legend that Achilles … was invulnerable in all of his body except for his heel. Will we in the near future due to biotechnology no longer need to descend from a godly bloodline in order to have traits like invulnerability?" Essaïdi wrote on her online blog.

Lewis said Essaïdi approached him in February after reading about his goat project, where he took genes from a spider and implanted them in a line of goats to produce silk proteins in their milk. Lewis has also created a line of silkworms who produce spider silk.

To help out, Lewis shipped a spool of spider silk made from his silkworms to the Dutch team. Recent articles mistakenly state the silk was from his goats, Lewis said.

A video on YouTube shows a demonstration of the project, with explanations in Dutch. In the video, the Dutch team sets up a gun in front of a block of gelatin. On the surface of the block, a culture of regular skin cells is placed.

Using time-lapse video, the bullet is shown piercing the skin, leaving a hole. Next, the bulletproof skin is placed on the block, but this time the bullet doesn't pierce the skin.

Although the project was intended to be performance art inspired by science, Lewis said it shows some very promising results in creating super-tough skin that can help surgeons securely close wounds.

Lewis said the combination of skin cells and silk also shows that spider silk is very compatible with the human body.

E-mail: gfattah@desnews.com

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