Researchers have discovered a way to assemble plant proteins, in order to create an incredibly strong material called vegan spider silk. The plan is to replace single-use plastics with this plant-based material. The name vegan spider silk comes from the way the material mimics spider silk on a molecular level.
Why Is Vegan Spider Silk Promising?
- Vegan spider silk uses sustainable materials and is energy efficient to produce.
- Compostable: can be composted at home and does not require industrial composting facilities for the material to decompose.
- Because production does not use chemicals, it can safely and sustainably degrade in most natural environments.
- Plant-based: no animals harmed or farmed. Although other researchers have been working with silk as an alternative to plastics, the problem is that this process still requires an animal product. Vegan spider silk, on the other hand, uses soy protein isolate (SPI).
Xampla, a spin-out company from the University of Cambridge, will oversee the material’s commercialization.
Knowledge Exchange in Science: The Unlikely Beginning
In an example of how progress can come from different branches of research, Professor Tuomas Knowles, from the University of Cambridge, started his work on proteins and Alzheimer’s disease. The point was to understand how proteins “misbehave” or “misfold”. They wanted to understand how proteins assemble and how this links to human diseases.
This interests in proteins led to research on the molecular bonds of spider silk. Spider silk is strong, but have weak molecular bonds. Replicating the molecular structures of spider silk, the team created a high-performance material by controlling protein arrangements, specifically, the polypeptide chains. This process negates the need for toxic chemical agents used to create plastics (polyethylene).