Introduction

In today’s world, the use of biotechnology to develop new materials is attracting great attention worldwide. It started a few years back, when a  Japanese startup called Spiber Inc. created an artificial spider silk using synthesized genes. These persuade bacteria to produce fibroin, a structural protein found in spider silk.  Researchers have developed technologies to cultivate this bacteria efficiently and weave the fibroin into fabric. The protein derived from fibroin has been given the name “QMONOS” (from the Japanese phrase “kumo-no-su” meaning spider web). Researchers have for long been trying to develop technology to mass-produce a strong and flexible artificial fiber by replicating spider silk. Sprider silk has long been known for its strength and elasticity. Beating rivals the world over, Spiber has achieved a world first with its mass-produced artificial spider silk. This Japanese biotechnology company has figured out how to make spider silk without the spiders. After 11 years of research, Spiber Inc. can now spin its own environmentally-friendly synthetic spider silk. According to Vegconomist, the adaptable product is made through complex microbial fermentation. The vegan material, named Qmonos, could be used instead of petroleum-based fabrics like polyester and nylon, which are used frequently in the fashion industry – especially in sportswear – but come with a high environmental impact. If you wear something made with Qmonos, you will feel like you are in a sci-fi movie. 

It is well known that Proteins are poised to become a sustainable next-generation material with potential unlike any the world has ever seen.  It all starts with spider silk, which is 340 times tougher than steel. Protein materials are environmentally friendly, highly customizable, and have incredible functionality.

Production of Qmonos Fibres 

Spider silk consists of chains of amino acids spun by spiders. Spider silk has exceptional mechanical properties such as high tensile strength and extensibility. This unique combination of properties enables a silk fiber to absorb a lot of energy before breaking.That is because this, Japanese fabric is made from a synthetic spider silk, produced using microbes and spider silk genes. Spiders are territorial predators that are hard to farm to produce its silk. The silk used for fabrics is harvested from silkworms because they are friendly and thousands of them can live together happily. Unlike silkworms, spiders are not so friendly and they tend to eat one another. Furthermore, spider farming is costly because it takes around 400 spiders to produce 0.85 square meters (one square yard) of spider silk cloth.Spider silk has complex molecular structure, so it is hard to create artificial spider silk genes. 

 The process of creating the Qmonos  into four phases:

  1. Design Stage: First, look at the DNA within a spider that is responsible for the creation of its silk. Then take this base design and tweak it on a computer, optimizing it for the process and end applications.
  2. DNA Synthesis Stage: Once a final design has been reached  that looks good, then synthesize that DNA in the lab and incorporate it into microbes.
  3. Microbial Fermentation Stage: Once these “host” microbes are prepared, then ferment them, in a process similar to fermenting beer. They are placed in a tank and provided oxygen, a temperate environment, and nutrients such as sugars which allow them to multiply and create lots of spider silk proteins (or whatever protein it is have been  coded for in the DNA).
  4. Materialization Stage: Then harvest the proteins and spin them into fibres in a synthetic spinning process much like with polyester or nylon. Basically, the proteins are in a liquid solution and pushed out of small pores. They then harden into fibres. It is also worth noting that fibres are not the only material that is  made out of the protein polymers. They have created fibres, films, sponges, plastics, and more.

However, researchers at Spiber managed to solve this problem by building their own system of Gene Synthesis; which is able to synthesize any fibroin gene, within 3 working days. They have developed a library of more than 250 types of artificial spider silk genes to date.With effective application of bioinformatics, researchers can analyse amino acid sequences and gene arrangements in order to maximize strength, stability, flexibility, functionality, and molecule thermo-stability. Modified candidate genes are synthesized and then reproduced with their own protein express system by bacteria. The source of nutrients for the bacteria is sustainable biomass. Fibroin is produced through fermentation. It is then put through the refining method. The fibre is then formed from the polymer QMONOS in a spinning process. Developed using genetic engineering and bacteria, the new artificial fibre is so strong that a 1cm diameter web would be strong enough to stop a jumbo jet during take off or landing. The scientists also validate that the material could find its way into a number of products, including clothes, medical equipment and autoparts.  

QMONOS can also be transformed into film, gel, sponge, powder, and nano fibre form.  Spiber’s idea was to put spider silk to practical use by using microorganisms to mass produce spider silk proteins, and using a spinning process similar to those of chemical fibers. Microorganisms grow on nutrients that derive from sustainable biomasses, and this in turn enables Spiber to produce their silk without relying on petroleum resources. The company firmly believes that developing a process to produce spider silk on a large scale could revolutionize the worlds industries, allowing Spiber to build cars which have less impact upon collision, and to make bio absorbable surgical suture threads for the repair of minute blood vessels and nerves.

Therefore, the biotechnology for rewriting the “blueprints” of proteins, which are the basis of DNA in all living creatures, was used this time to develop QMONOS, aiming to make a living organism other than a spider to produce the same proteins as found in spider silk. Bacteria were chosen in place of the spider. Through bacterial cultivation, bacteria can be grown to large quantities in a short amount of time. In fact, a bacterium with its blueprint altered to become capable of producing spider silk would continue multiplying to 100 million bacteria within half a day in test equipment. The spider silk proteins extracted from these bacteria are first dissolved and then made into thread in the same way as other synthetic fibers. Previously, there was a problem that highly poisonous and dangerous chemicals had to be used to dissolve the spider silk; however, a safe chemical was discovered during the development of Qmonos. Another major feature of Qmonos is that, it can be dyed by mixing in colour during the process of powdering and dissolving the proteins. The resultant threads and fibres do not need to be dyed again at a later part of the process.

Properties of Qmonos Fibres 

Spider silk has some amazing properties. It is as strong as steel, tougher than Kevlar, and lighter than carbon fibre but more flexible than nylon, yet still lightweight and comfortable. It weights 1/6th the weight of steel and 40 percent less than carbon fibre. However, farming spiders for their silk would be a very impractical venture. That is why some groups have looked into creating synthetic spider silk. Japanese company Spiber is one of those, and it recently joined forces with The North Face to create a parka made from its QMONOS fibre. Called the Moon Parka, the garment is reportedly “the world’s first piece of clothing made from artificial protein material” based on spider silk. 

The fibre is tougher than steel. For example, if a spider web was made with a fibre that has 1 cm (0.4 inches) in diameter, it could catch a jumbo jet. It is completely biodegradable and, as they say in the movies, zero spiders were harmed in the making of this fabric

Natural spider silk’s impressive qualities are due mainly to a protein that it’s made from, known as fibroin. Creating completely man-made fibroin in the lab has proven to be a daunting task, so Spiber instead chose to decode the gene responsible for the production of fibroin in spiders, and then bioengineered bacteria with recombinant DNA to produce the protein. That synthetic fibroin is subsequently spun into QMONOS, which is the Japanese word for “spider.”

Uses  of Qmonos Fibres 

Beside being used in clothing, the huge variety of Qmonos materials could be used in sports, space exploration, auto-industry and for a new line of accessories. It is also seven times stronger than aramid fibre, which is used for making bulletproof vests. 

Once the mass production technology advances and the manufacturing costs fall, the synthetic spider silk will be used for a host of purposes. It is also considered possible to make even lighter and stronger aircraft fuselages and automotive parts by mixing the spider silk with carbon fibre and other materials and to manufacture artificial blood vessels and surgical thread by using this light, soft, and durable material. It could also be used for material in space suits by utilizing its strong resistance to UV.

The pioneer has already partnered with the Japanese ski clothing label Goldwin to make a ski jacket with its product. Named the Moon Parka, the spider silk-based jacket will be able to withstand significant wear and tear when the wearer is participating in extreme sports.

The new developed spinning technology from scratch and have achieved fibre toughness comparable to natural spider silk. Qmonos has been developed on the  basis of fibre forming technology that can be scaled up for mass production. To mass produce the new material Qmonos, a facility capable of producing 100 kg per month will be constructed in Yamagata prefecture in near future. The plan is to raise monthly output to 50 tons by 2022.

Author: Dr.N.N. MAHAPATRA Business Head (Dyes), SHREE PUSHKAR CHEMICALS & FERTILISERS LTD.