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Japan start-up spins profitable future for synthetic spider silk

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Later this year, outdoor-gear retailer North Face will offer its environmentally conscious shoppers at its outlet in Tokyo’s posh Harajuku fashion district a chance to save the planet.
North Face’s outlets in Japan will sell a $1,000, special edition “Moon Parka,” a gold-colored jacket based on the design of its existing Antarctica parka, made out of synthetic spider silk, a super-strong material developed by Spiber Inc.
Spiber President Kazuhide Sekiyama, 33, who invented the company’s technology to make artificial spider silk, said releasing what he calls the world’s first commercial piece of clothing made from the bio-fiber protein material is just the beginning.
Spiber and its partner Goldwin Inc., a Japanese sports apparel maker, plan to expand the use of the ersatz silk-made products, possibly for underwear products used by mountain climbers or the Canterbury rugby wear brand.
“What makes a protein-based material marvelous is it’s evolving” in the use of apparel or other forms of industrial products, Sekiyama said in an interview in Tokyo.
Natural spider thread, a protein fiber, is known for its superpowers as a material: It’s stronger than steel on a relative basis and more elastic than nylon. Unlike nylon and polyester, spider thread isn’t derived from petroleum, and doesn’t release a large volume of carbon dioxides in the manufacturing process.
Sekiyama studied bio-science at Keio University and made up his mind to research spiders in his senior year while at a summer camp. Over drinks, he and other students marveled at the sophistication of the arachnid’s silk-making ability.
That’s when he became fascinated by the possibility of developing artificial silk.
In 2007, Sekiyama, then 24, launched Spiber together with two of his friends against the wishes of parents and professors.
Scientists at Spiber have examined various species of spiders to understand the genetic sequence of silk proteins and accumulated data on hundreds of types of gene synthesis. The company uses genetically altered micro-organisms to mass produce a silk-protein material called “Qmonos,” meaning spider’s web in Japanese.
The firm inserts DNA it designed into bacteria, and grow them by feeding sugar — using a similar fermentation process to making sake or beer. They then take out silk proteins from the micro-organisms and refine them into thread.
Overseas firms are also working on similar processes and competition is set to intensify. Bolt Threads Inc., based on California, said it’s confident about its process that uses a different micro-organism, scales cost effectively and can produce not just spider silk but also multiple fibers with advanced performance proprieties.

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