Phenotypeca and the Spider Lab at the University of Nottingham announce groundbreaking collaboration to facilitate large-scale, low-cost production of spider silk for use in medicine.

October 2021

Leading yeast biofoundry company, Phenotypeca, just announced a groundbreaking collaboration with the University of Nottingham’s ‘SpiderLab’ in partnership with Professor Sara Goodacre and Professor Neil Thomas. This radical partnership will break new ground in the evolution of spider silk proteins and will focus on ways to optimise the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae (baker’s yeast) for spider silk production. Ultimately, this project aims to uncover ways to facilitate the large-scale production of spider silk proteins at a relatively low cost, contributing to Phenotypeca’s mission of making life-saving medicines more affordable and accessible to all that need them.

Chris Finnis, Research Director at Phenotypeca comments: ‘We are delighted to embark on this exciting partnership, which will advance the production of spider silk proteins. Phenotypeca has the world’s largest collection of yeast strains engineered for industrial recombinant protein production, which we will screen to increase protein yield and genetic stability during industrial manufacture, building on the work that the University of Nottingham has already completed.  As a business, we are committed to making life-saving medicines more affordable and accessible, and in collaboration with the Nottingham SpiderLab we will be one step closer to delivering on that mission.’ 

Professor Sara Goodacre from the University of Nottingham’s Spider Lab comments: ‘Spider silks are some of the most amazing substances on the planet. They can form fibres that are a thousand times finer than human hair, yet retain incredible strength and flex – and unlike the equivalent stretch of rope, these fibres may even have a memory. Twist multiple times, let it go and they return exactly to their starting place. For medicine, some of the less immediately apparent properties make this is a revolutionary material, because, unlike many complex proteins, it does not appear to be covered in molecules that often cause allergic reactions. We have shown that natural house spider silk also has antibacterial properties, and these properties are something that we have now managed to recreate artificially. We are delighted to partner with Phenotypeca in order to take these discoveries to the next level by uncovering new ways to facilitate large-scale production of spider silks at a lower cost and make our ambitions a reality.’

 

About spider silk: 

Spider silk is a remarkable biomaterial that has been used by people for millennia. It is stronger and tougher than silkworm silk and much more diverse thanks to spiders’ abilities to produce many different types of fibre, each with distinct features. These properties make it an interesting candidate for use in the bioengineering or medical industries, but the retrieval of spider silk is not without its challenges - the cannibalistic nature of spiders makes them particularly difficult to farm. 

In its purest form, individual silks can be as stretchy as rubber, as strong as steel, or as tough as Kevlar. It has been used for functions as diverse as webs for rudimentary bandages or single threads used to create stable sights for telescopes. This is thanks to spider silk proteins which can form several types of materials and structures, from strong fibres to support tricky abseils to sticky threads which can immobilise prey.

These proteins, called “spidroins”, are produced in specialised glands in the spider’s abdomen and are extruded through spinnerets, creating long chains which form fibres.  It is the interactions between the proteins in these chains which gives the fibre its unique properties. 

 

Types of spider silk

  • Major Ampullate: this is the strongest type.
  • Flagelliform: this is the most flexible and coated in a sticky glue-silk.
  • Tubuliform: the toughest form, woven by the female spider to protect her egg sac.

 

Technological advancements in the production of spider silk

Recent technological advancements have enabled the production of artificial miniaturised silks using microorganisms. These synthetic silk proteins can mimic their natural counterparts in strength, flexibility, non-immunogenicity and biodegradability.

Most recombinant silks have been expressed in E. coli, as it is easy to manipulate and has a short generation time. However, yields can be low, and the proteins are often incorrectly folded, insoluble and difficult to recover when produced in bacteria.  Yeast, as a eukaryotic host, also has the ability to secrete and post-translationally modify proteins, making them more similar to their natural counterparts.

 

About Spider Lab at the University of Nottingham

The SpiderLab is part of the University of Nottingham’s School of Life Sciences. It is home to world-leading research on a range of different biological problems using spiders as model systems. In addition to collaborating with colleagues in the School of Chemistry to make synthetic versions of spider silk in the laboratory, other current projects include using spiders as a way to control pest insects in farmers’ fields and other ecosystems.