Spiders, unlike silk worms, are territorial predators that cannot be farmed. Methods involving genetic engineering techniques to artificially produce spider silks have been studies since around 1990.
In these studies the genes for spider silk fibroin proteins were decoded and incorporated into other organisms (hosts) in attempt to produce artificial protein material. However, protein production is only one part of the challenge. The process of spinning the protein into fibers had many challenging complications, and researchers were unable to create fibers with toughness comparable to natural spider silks.
Several research teams across the world are currently working to enable industrial mass production of spider silks, but breakthrough innovations are yet to be proposed.
Bioinformatics is a cross disciplinary field combining biotechnology and IT. The use of this key technology to analyze large amounts of data including amino acid sequences, genes, and experimental data, has enabled us a workable approach towards industrial production of spider silk.
We at Spiber assumed that the final key for development of an industrial production process, in addition to biotechnology and fiber spinning technology, is to systematically track and accumulate the vast data generated through research activities into a database of parameters such as cultivation conditions, refining conditions, spinning conditions, physical properties of product fibers, etc.
Aiming for a molecular design that achieves both product performance and productivity, we have assembled an in-house research team and proprietary infrastructure including a database system and bioinformatics environment for design and analysis, a cutting-edge biotechnology research environment, and fiber spinning technology research facilities. Our hyper multidisciplinary research environment is the foundation of our competitiveness.
The aim is to design protein molecules that achieve both functionality performance and productivity at the same time. Balancing these two properties is essential for an industrialized process. Analyzing amino acid sequences and genetic codes using approaches of bioinformatics, we design protein molecules with stronger tensile strength, higher elasticity, higher heat tolerance, more advanced functionalities, and better fermentation productivity in host microorganisms.
In order to efficiently develop new protein molecules with various amino acid sequences, the capability to synthesize DNA at high throughput is essential. However, spider silk proteins have highly repetitive sequences, resulting in technical challenges in this process. We have tackled this problem to established the capability to synthesise new fibroin genes in a minimum of just three days. We have applied this technology to synthesize over 250 artificial spider silk genes to date. We are synthesizing new genes to add to our library every day, including today.
Once our new candidate fibroin genes are designed and synthesized, we use our proprietary protein expression system for test production of the proteins. In this process we incorporate the synthesized genetic DNA into microbes, which then gain capability to produce the material composing spider silk; fibroin protein. After tuning parameters such as fermentation conditions and refining conditions, we are able to begin test spinning in a minimum of 10 days after completion of gene synthesis. After this initial screening of candidates, we can scale up to obtain larger quantities of prospectful proteins as necessary. Spiber's productivity for microbial fibroin protein expression is the highest in the world. Advancements in our fermentation process and gene design capabilities have allowed productivity to increase 2,500 times higher than it was when we first started our research.
Fibroin proteins produced through microbial fermentation are refined and then formed into fibers through our proprietary spinning process. Properties of the resulting artificial spider silks are carefully analyzed, studied, and recorded in our database to be capitalized on in future molecular designs. At Spiber we have created an entirely original technology from scratch to spin artificial fibroin fibers with toughness comparable to natural spider silks. Moreover, we have established the first scalable spinning process in the world which paves the way towards mass production of artificial spider silks.
The fibroin derived protein that we are developing has been named "QMONOS", from "kumo-no-su" meaning spider web in Japanese. QMONOS can be fabricated into various forms including fibers, films, gels, sponges, powders, and Nano-fibers. We intend to spread the use of QMONOS as a first step towards an era in which proteins mastered as an industrial material.
In November 2013, we have completed construction of a prototyping research plant together with Kojima Industries Corporation. This facility is capable of producing more than 100kg of QMONOS fiber per month, and will be used for development of an industrial scale production process and application technologies. In 2015 we plan to launch a pilot plant with an annual capacity of over 10 tons, and to begin supplying our material worldwide. Our dream of making industrial use of spider silk is just around the corner.