53– Spiders and silkworms and hagfish, oh my! Justin Jones on spider silk research at USU

June 29, 2021 Utah State University Office of Research Episode 53
53– Spiders and silkworms and hagfish, oh my! Justin Jones on spider silk research at USU
Show Notes Transcript

Utah State’s spider silk research has made the news on multiple occasions, but what are they doing now? In this episode, Wyatt sits down with Justin Jones, assistant professor of biology and director of the spider silk lab. This episode covers everything from why we can’t farm spiders to how hagfish protect themselves from sharks to a glue stronger than gorilla glue. Join us to learn what we’re learning from spider silk now, and how we’re leveraging that for the future.

Justin Jones: [00:00:00] N. C. I. S. I believe came in and filmed a little bit in the laboratory and took a lot of, or protocols and whatnot to try and reproduce it, uh, for one of their programs. And so I worked for a couple of days to try and get them up to speed on how you actually purify spider silk protein from a goat. Uh, and then when the television show came on, it was just, it was wrong on so many levels, but it was, it was funny.

They had a goat standing on a table in a blue lit room, very dramatic wind. You, and they were just winding silk out of the utter of this goat. 

Wyatt Archer: [00:00:32] I mean, that definitely seems more entertaining. 

Justin Jones: [00:00:35] It was. Yeah. So my name is Justin Jones. I'm an assistant professor in the department of biology. And I'm also the director of the spider silk lab here at Utah State University 

Wyatt Archer: [00:00:48]  I’m Wyatt Archer.

And today's episode is about spider silk, what it can do for us and what it's going to take to commercialize it. You could be getting your information from a fictional crime drama, but luckily you are listening to this instead.

 A podcast from Utah state university's office of research.

At the end of this episode, you'll know why so many scientists are committed to unlocking the power of spider silk. Justin Jones explains the complications with getting other species to produce spider silk proteins. And he also explains why. Start an orb weaving spider farm. Justin Jones gives some pretty good advice to any undergraduates looking to get involved in research at a university.

And he tells a story of how his mentor got him involved with research. And later in the episode, you'll learn how decades of spider silk research paved the way for a quick turnaround on hag fish. But before we get to any of that, here's what makes spider silk cool. 

What makes spider silk special? 

Justin Jones: [00:01:58] Well, the, the, not the number one reason in a no particular order, but first off it's green, right?

It's not a petrochemical derived polymer that has impressive mechanical abilities. Um, so it's, it's green and it has impressive mechanical abilities. It has both the ability to stretch and as well as the ability to be strong, giving it a very high energy to break. And a great analogy of that is if you're a climber, you want your rope to be tough because it can absorb energy when you fall. It doesn't just snap you very, very tightly. And that's the, the mechanical property of at least dragline silk, uh, in spiders. The, what else is so intriguing about these is it's been known for a lot of years and native Americans used silks routinely. I would say to put into wounds to help the wounds heal.

So we know that the native silks don't cause an immune response within human body. I E they can be implanted in the body, uh, and they won't be rejected. By the body. So you could use them inside the body as sutures and that sort of thing, and not run into any kind of trouble, but also your sutures would have very good mechanical ability.

Um, so those are the, those are the reasons people are so intrigued with spaghetti. Yeah. 

Wyatt Archer: [00:03:08] So based on my understanding of spider silk, there's lots of facets to it. You just mentioned textiles medical applications there. There's also like adhesives defense applications. Manufacturing economics and biological engineering. Um, what is your piece of the spider silk pie? 

Justin Jones: [00:03:26] Well, my piece is I get to play in all those pools, um, right. And I have to think about all those different aspects of it, because if you really, truly are. I'm going to do the research that enables you to take something out of the laboratory. You've got to know all those different facets, the biological engineering, how are we, how and what genes are we putting into, uh, silkworms bacteria, goats, uh, in alfalfa, um, as well as the techno economic side of things, uh, you know. What are the Platforms then to produce a fiber or to produce an adhesive or, or to produce a film. Um, so my, my role is, is, uh, overall, I guess, uh, for all those different areas. 

Wyatt Archer: [00:04:09] Yeah. Yeah. So. Where did you start though? Okay. People just don't start off in charge unless they were like born a king or 

Justin Jones: [00:04:17] right. Yeah. And certainly wasn't, um, I started out as an undergraduate at the university of Wyoming where Dr.xRandy Lewis was at the time and he was my academic advisor. And along towards my sophomore year, he said, you need to get involved in a lab. And so he handed me a pamphlet with all the different labs in the universe. That I could jump in and be a part of, and his research on recombinant, spider silk stuck out to me, uh, because of the applications and, and you know, the novelty of the work.

Um, and so I joined his lab as an undergraduate and about 1990. Six somewhere in there. Uh, and then I went on to get my master's, uh, in his laboratory, uh, as well, working on the first, uh, spider silk films. Um, and then I did a stint in the biotech industry, uh, which was great. I learned, uh, just a lot of new techniques, uh, protein purifications things that really applied then to me coming back to the university of Wyoming, uh, and trying to scale the process of production of spider silk.

Wyatt Archer: [00:05:17] Yeah. So. I went to college, you know, and like, none of, I was never close enough with any of my academic advisors that they would like, like even know my name, except for like, Hey, I can't get into this class. How did you develop a relationship with somebody who was like, you need to be in a lab, it'll be good for your career kid.

Just like shut up and do it or whatever. 

Justin Jones: [00:05:35] Yeah. Yeah, uh, it's kind of a roundabout story, but, uh, I was, I was probably a little overly direct and, uh, my job, my first job in Randy's lab was washing the dishes. And, and this was back in the day when you made, uh, sequencing gels on your own. And so the graduate student that I worked for, I cleaned his sequencing plates and poured the gels form, but then wash dishes.

And then as I got into it, good enough, I found myself with a fair amount of spare time. And so I went straight to Randy and I said, Hey, I need, you know, more to do. Um, you know, what can I do? And so he started assigning me projects that were, uh, you know, recom that recombinant production of spider silk proteins and that kind of thing.

And I just built it up from there. Um, you know, to where, when I actually came back to the university of Wyoming, his lab, I was running the laboratory portion of things, both there and at Utah state university, when we moved here, what 

Wyatt Archer: [00:06:25] is silk is that. Uh, some kind of fiber from a bug, 

Justin Jones: [00:06:30] like, yeah, it loosely.

That's what it is. But, uh, in terms of spider silk, uh, you know, it's just amino acids arranged into a protein, um, and nothing else. It's just protein and water, essentially. That. Uh, make these very unique fibers. And, but the sequences of the silks are what makes them different than say caddisflies silk or even silkworm silk spider silk sequences are highly repetitive.

There there's some of the most highly repetitive genes you can find in nature. There are also some of the largest proteins that you can find produced in nature, and they also have one of the highest reliances on to amino acids, glycine and alanine. Uh, and which allows them to create these very nice beta sheets, which are really, really strong.

So those three things are what the spiders have evolved to make these very strong fibers. But those three things, the high reliance on glycine and alanine, uh, the high repetitively, as well as the massive size, greater than 300 kilodaltons on these proteins are also what makes them very difficult to reproduce, uh, in, in heterologous host be that bacteria, goats, or, or alfalfa or even yeast.


Wyatt Archer: [00:07:39] So what is a kilodalton? Like what a, 

Justin Jones: [00:07:41] yeah, a, kilodalton just a unit of measure of, of mass, of a protein, right? Um, so how big is the protein? So a kilodalton is a thousand dollars. Okay. Yeah. It's just a unit of measure. 

Wyatt Archer: [00:07:53] So are these proteins longer or are they 

Justin Jones: [00:07:55] fatter or they have a longer amino sequences, which gives them the very long or very large size at 300 kilodaltons plus.

Wyatt Archer: [00:08:06] Yeah. So it was like one strand of silk. That's still thousands of proteins. It is. And there's just less linkages in between them or 

Justin Jones: [00:08:15] right. Well, it's, you're kind of speaking to a problem. That's evolved with the heterologous expression in, in bacteria. For instance, we're only able to produce silks that are roughly 60 to a hundred kilodaltons in length, so less than a third of the full length proteins.

And so when you try and spend those into a fiber, you end up with very small areas of overlap, as well as a high frequency of breaks between chains. Imperfections in that fiber. And that's why you can't spend fibers that mimic natural spider silk out of these smaller proteins. Right? Because you just end up with that higher degree of, of, of imperfections of the fiber, where these change in.

Whereas if you had a 300 kilodalton long protein, you would have very much fewer of those imperfections are where those chains terminate, uh, resulting in a, uh, higher mechanical property on those fibers, that natural spider soaks. Uh, produce, how did 

Wyatt Archer: [00:09:05] spiders evolve to have these amazing properties in their threads?

Justin Jones: [00:09:10] Well, you know, they had to, to survive essentially is, is the way evolution works. And, uh, you know, so as to how did they evolve to that? No one really knows. Um, but what they did evolve to is, is probably the most impressive protein sequences for, for structure and mechanics. Uh, ability that exists out there.

Uh, we may discover others in the future, but as of right now, that's just an impressive subset. A spider, uh, produces six different types of silk, uh, five of which are fibers and those five fibers, any 

Wyatt Archer: [00:09:41] thread producing spider does all six or 

Justin Jones: [00:09:43] bleeding. . And, and so each one of those, you know, over the course of evolution has adapted to, to perform a role in the spider's life cycle, uh, be that prey capture or, or reproduction, and sometimes both.

Um, and they do it very, very well. For instance, uh, you know, these, these orb webs are, are composed of a little bit of major ambulate silk to put the web up. But then that capture spiral is made of a protein called flagella form. Silk has 300%. Inelasticity something very similar to rubber, right? Cause it makes sense.

If a grasshopper is flying into web grasshoppers, big a, you need to be able to absorb that energy through 300% of plasticity, but that's not the end of it. Right? That it, you just set up a trampoline effect and you're going to trampoline. That grasshopper right off that web. So what spiders evolved was a glue, the one glue protein that they produce, um, that they dot along this flagella form, this capture spiral that glues that grasshopper to the web.

So it doesn't get bounced off. And it gives a spider time to, to wrap that, that grasshopper and then consume it. Who figured 

Wyatt Archer: [00:10:50] out that or weavers, like, why are they the ones where like, that's a soap 

Justin Jones: [00:10:54] we want to use? I think it was a, it was a number of different people. Um, and it. You know, number one, because of the availability of the webs, you could find these things.

They're very visible. They're visible here in Utah, as well as bigger spider species. 

Wyatt Archer: [00:11:08] I mean, I always assumed it like the cool animal we're stealing properties from is in like Africa or south America. Like this is like a normal spider that's around you. Yeah, 

Justin Jones: [00:11:16] absolutely. You can find it's called an erroneous.

Good. Moieties it's the cat face spider. Uh, and so if you ever get a spider built on, uh, you know, on the, on your back deck or if you've got a barn and you see that very nice or web you'll often see a spider about yay. Big come about August. Uh, and it has two little horns on its abdomen, uh, and they're called the cat face spider and they build a beautiful orb web.

The spiders that we tended to focus on. We're the Nephila plumipes or the golden orb. We've been spider, um, out of places like the Okefenokee swamp down in Florida, uh, even all the way down in the keys because they're a very large spider and they build a very large web so that when you were dissecting those spiders, you could, you could very easily pick out the different gland groups, uh, to go after them.

Consequently, also Nephila plumipes has one of the strongest dragline silks known. Yeah. So 

Wyatt Archer: [00:12:06] this is just like, okay, so you did have to go somewhere a little tropical to find it. You're like cat face is good. Let's find its big fat cousin. Yep. And then that's helpful because it's like opening up like an ink jet printer and being like that's the color we want.

That's all right. That's all right. Okay.

Oh, and you mentioned like glue and he saves and stuff. 

Justin Jones: [00:12:30] And so he found is what? When we produced the two proteins that make up dragline silk MISP one. And MISP two. We have. Goats that produce each of those two proteins, uh, in a shorter recombinant form. What we found when I first figured out how to dissolve these things in an aqueous solution.

And then I tried to spin them into fibers is it would glue my glass syringe together and I don't mean glue it. So I had to pull really hard to get my syringe together. I broke the syringe in order to get it apart. And so it spawned an idea of, wow, that must be a pretty decent adhesive. Proteins that normally in nature make a fiber, can they form an adhesive?

And so we started researching that and the answer is, is yes, it makes it a pretty impressive, uh, adhesive. So we compared it, and this is mostly on wood substrates, but you can, player are adhesive made out of recombinant, spider silk with gorilla glue, with Elmer's glue. We outperformed them all and we outperformed gorilla glue by a fair margin.

Um, and what we found with gorilla glue is the glue would break what we found with our spider silk glue. Is the glue would never break. It would actually break the substrate before the glue. So the wooded break before the glue joint broke. 

Wyatt Archer: [00:13:39] Do that, 

Justin Jones: [00:13:40] like, what is it's? It's an interesting question. We don't fully know the answer to that yet, but what we think happens is, you know, this is a very liquid material and it's able to find any small imperfection, uh, in the material of which would has a number of them.

Uh, and, and when it dries, then it becomes essentially spider silk stuck in those cracks. And whether it's with its fingernails dug in there and it becomes very, very. 

Wyatt Archer: [00:14:03] Spider execs have tons of potential spider babies. And I'm why can't we just farm out, get a colony or weavers 

Justin Jones: [00:14:10] going well, and that's the way you do it with silkworms, right?

Silkworms are perfectly happy being crawling, overload over each other and being in close confined space. But a spiders have two personality defects. If you will. They're not ravers. They're not ravers. They're both territorial and cannibalistic. So when, when you get two spiders that get too close to each other, they'll fight until one of them's dead to give the other spider the perceived space that it needs.

So if you were to fill my office with spiders, you could put 10,000 spiders in here, come back tomorrow morning. And there would be one up in that corner. One up in that corner, you know, basically those are the only spiders that would survive because they all would have that perceived amount of space. So that's the first problem.

The second problem is trying to get the silk out of the spiders. Uh, it's a very, uh, Strenuous process, both for the spider, as well as the person doing it. And it's very, very slow. And so you might get, you know, 200 feet of silk out of one spider, uh, and that's all you get for the day and you had to have a person devoted to do that.

So on every level, uh, of trying to farm spiders, it's not. Yeah. 

Wyatt Archer: [00:15:15] Yeah. So in that like fancy fashion, Mike made that one, like scarf or Cape or whatever. What were your feelings 

Justin Jones: [00:15:23] on that? It was good for forever because I think a demonstrated, cause they told, you know, how many spiders they had to harvest silk from and how many man hours it took to make that thing.

And it was just astronomical. So it really drove home. The fact we're not going to be farming spiders anytime soon, uh, you know, for any kind of market, unless you want one blanket. You know, kind of thing, and that's just not practical. So 

Wyatt Archer: [00:15:45] sometimes it's a good idea to do a bad idea so everybody can see how it 

Justin Jones: [00:15:49] is.

And it was very beautiful to be seeing it in person or pictures. 

Wyatt Archer: [00:15:54] Why is this research happening here at Utah state university? And why did it get started in Wyoming? You know? Cause I don't know. Cause I watch too much TV. I'm just like everything important happens in California, in New York. Like why Wyoming and 

Justin Jones: [00:16:08] Utah, right?

Yeah. It's a great question. Uh, so Randy Lewis started this research, I believe about 19 89, 19 88, somewhere in there. And, uh, the story goes that he was consulting for a company that, uh, wanted, had the idea to try and recombinantly express, uh, spider silk proteins. And they had a heck of a time and they couldn't do it.

And they gave up on the project. So he asked him. Do you mind if I pick this up in my lab and we run with it and the rest is kind of history because he got funded to do it was able to isolate the genes and was able to prove that they could be recombinantly produced reproduced, uh, using bacteria. And then he went on to, uh, to sequence the remaining genes of an orb weaving spider, um, and, and start recombinantly producing all of those proteins.

And so that was the university of Wyoming, largely is, is what we're doing as well as the development of the goats. Uh, then the impetus to move to Utah state university came through the USTAR program, uh, and, and that, you know, giving us money for that valley of death. How do we start solving. Problems that are not basic research so that we can potentially, uh, build a product out of these things one day.

Uh, and it's just been, it's been fantastic. The you star program was, was wonderful. It got us a long ways down the road. Um, and, and, uh, it was, it's been 

Wyatt Archer: [00:17:26] lot of fun. Yeah. So essentially just Randy, wasn't a place where there was space to act on an idea and he did it. Yep. I dunno, does all research like fall into the valley of death at some point, or is like some type of research, like more prone to be like, we figured this out, but nothing's ever going to happen with it.


Justin Jones: [00:17:45] It just becomes another, another piece of the puzzle to solving a problem. And so, yeah, there's a lot of research that that's not, uh, you know, going to have that problem, but particularly when you're looking at spider silk, when it does have so many applications, um, you know, outside of the laboratory, we're not just studying it to understand its protein structures and.

Yeah, uh, um, protein folding, uh, you know, we actually want to be able to replicate that and do something with it. Uh, whether it's textiles or medical goods, we definitely have to go through that, that valley of death. 

Wyatt Archer: [00:18:16] Who's in this research group, and I know you probably can't name all of them, but like what kind of roles are being 

Justin Jones: [00:18:21] filled?

Yeah. So I've got four postdoctoral researchers. Um, I've got one laboratory technician. I have two graduate students and normally I'm running, uh, 10 to 12 undergraduates. 

Wyatt Archer: [00:18:36] Wow. Um, what do you have those undergraduate student? Busy with Washington dishes. 

Justin Jones: [00:18:42] Ah, not so much anymore. No. Um, we want, um, helping, uh, our senior scientists.

Um, so why have a good, uh, number of students are normally in a non COVID year? I would have a lot more students than I have right now. Um, but we have, so the purification of the hagfish proteins that we haven't spoke about a lot yet. Oh, we'll get to it. Um, is, is an entirely undergraduate driven team, the purification of the.

Spider silk is also driven entirely by undergraduates. So the undergraduates are in charge of making the schedules, running the processes and doing the quality control on the, the purifications. Um, for both those elements, doing that 


Wyatt Archer: [00:19:21] of stuff. How do undergraduate get involved in your lab? 

Justin Jones: [00:19:25] Most of them, uh, reach out to.

Um, I don't have to do a lot of searching for people. Um, and, and that's great. Cause I usually get very bright and very motivated people, uh, because they have reached out. Um, and if I have positions available, then you know, we try and hire them if, if we can get them through the hiring process. So, um, it, it, it works great.

Wyatt Archer: [00:19:45] Yeah. So I guess like what I'm learning from you and your students is, um, It only feels like you're being overly direct when you're actually saving people, the step of having to like recruit students. 

Justin Jones: [00:19:58] Absolutely. Absolutely. And, and, you know, if you've got the Moxie to approach a professor directly, um, it says something about your character and what you will be in the laboratory.

So, um, I actually, I prefer that people to step forward and say, Hey, I'm interested in your research. Um, and I'd love to come learn and work with you. 

Wyatt Archer: [00:20:17] So we've mentioned, um, Silkworms Ecolab, goats. What other species are we trying to use today? Are you trying to use to get spider stuff? I'm not doing anything.

Justin Jones: [00:20:29] Uh, yeah, it's alfalfa is the other one that, uh, I wouldn't say we're actively pursuing it because again, we're sitting in the back valley of death with it. Um, we've proved that we can make alfalfa produce spider silk protein. Now we just need to prove it on a higher scale. And that requires. Uh, probably outside investment in order to get that to happen.

And so that's what we're seeking right now. And the advantage for alfalfa is number one, they produce, uh, very much larger proteins, uh, than mammals tend to. Um, so they have the machinery in place and are equipped to handle, uh, these very large proteins. Um, but also, I wouldn't say they're easy to make transgenic, but it's not that difficult in order to make them transgenic, uh, and express that spider silk protein as a portion of their leaves.

Uh, but then getting the protein out of the leaves and purified is a whole nother problem. So,

Wyatt Archer: [00:21:21] Hm. So like the goats that comes out in their milk, the silkworms that like comes out as they spend for moth cocooning or whatever. 

Justin Jones: [00:21:31] Which turns out to be really important, right? Yeah. Because if you're producing spider silk and a goat, right, you have to collect that protein and purify it. And then we have to spin it into a fiber using our, our non mimetic system of producing fibers.

And it doesn't work, work very well. Whereas a silkworm has fiber spinning machinery, protein production, and fiber spinning machinery that is very close to what you see in a spider. So they spend a really, really good fiber and an industry has existed for thousands of years to rear silkworms and harvest the cocoons from them.

So the industry exists. Whereas if you were trying to do this from goats, right, and purify that protein, then spend the fiber and make fabrics that industry doesn't exist anywhere. Um, so you'd have to build that all up on your own. How 

Wyatt Archer: [00:22:13] has, um, doing this work changed? Do you see products differently? Do you see fabrics 

Justin Jones: [00:22:19] differently?

Yeah. You know, you don't, you don't get to see much of it anymore. You know, unfortunately soak out there, uh, you know, on our, on our racks and our shopping centers and that kind of thing. Um, so certainly I think the way it's changed. You know how I perceive this work is there are whole lot of applications that could benefit from something, a material like this, you know, not just because it's a biodegradable material, it's not plastic.

Um, but because of these amazing mechanical properties, um, so even some of the things, you know, like silk sutures, aren't. And used very much before. And that's because the silk industry, you know, in China and Southeast Asia and India has kind of fallen apart a little bit. Uh, and the error bars on the silk they produce are just too great, uh, that a surgeon can't rely on the, the mechanical properties of those, those sutures.

So you don't see them anymore. Well with this technology and, and with our partners overseas, we can grow silkworms that have impressive mechanical properties with very narrow aerobars on their mechanical. Um, so we see a lot of, a lot of opportunity for obligate applications. Yeah. 

Wyatt Archer: [00:23:22] Based on what I know about silkworms, they only eat like Mulberry leaves.

There's some like tree that's in certain parts of Asia. Yeah. 

Justin Jones: [00:23:28] It used to grow here in Utah and they did gates. I'd say go back to, you know, a hundred years ago. In fact, you can still find them today, uh, in the state of Utah in different parts of the state. Uh, so there very much was a silkworm industry here in Utah.

Wyatt Archer: [00:23:42] At one point. And so they like a little bit of a cooler wetter climate, then 

Justin Jones: [00:23:46] they can handle it. They were apparently raised in barns during the winter with the fires going, uh, you know, to keep them warm during the winter. So it was not an easy, easy thing to do 

Wyatt Archer: [00:23:55] either. So hot house tree kind of. Wow. So is there any interest in like, oh, if we could switch them to a different kind of.

Food source. 

Justin Jones: [00:24:06] It's a big shift and, and, uh, absolutely a bottleneck and getting this out of the laboratory. And one we're working on with another partner overseas is, uh, we call it a silkworm chow. So it's got a percentage of Mulberry leaves in it, but the rest of it is made up with soybeans. Uh, and, and maybe leftover corn products and things of that nature that, uh, should give the silkworm all the nutrients it needs, but also just enough Mulberry in there to make the silkworm, want to eat it.

And they do. Um, so we've got a, a silkworm chow now that we actually can buy commercially here in the United States. That works really, really well. Um, and it's, uh, it's much more affordable than trying to grow Mulberry trees and harvest the leaves and, and do that sort of thing. Yeah, we're, we're down the road, a ways on that, uh, on figuring out alternative turn to feed sources.

Um, but when you think about it in a manufacturing environment where you've got millions and millions and millions of warms growing, um, uh, procuring a supply chain of that, that material is going to be a problem. So we have to figure that out. So it's like you're 

Wyatt Archer: [00:25:10] putting just enough beef in the burger to make like a steak or be like, fine.

I'll eat it. Um,

The way I'm understanding this is, um, it's like spider silk is like Legos, super strong. Great. Yup. Trying to recreate that with bacteria, you're essentially getting like one, like, you know, what is that like? One of those buttons that things it clicks on too. And like, you could build something out of that, but it would like fall apart.

Cause there's nothing connecting to it's much. Correct. And so like using like a silkworm, um, you could get like your like normal. 

Justin Jones: [00:25:48] Yes. That's that's correct. It's a good analogy. 

Wyatt Archer: [00:25:50] Thank you. Yup. That's how I'm going to store that information away. There you go. Can those bacteria versions still be useful?

Justin Jones: [00:25:59] They can, yeah. In, in anything but a requirement that has, you know, a mechanical ability per se. Right. So we found evidence that you can take these bacterially derived proteins. More importantly, the goat derive spider silk proteins, and you can encapsulate vaccines, uh, very particular vaccines, and then you don't have to keep them cold.

Um, and the work has not really gone anywhere yet, but hopefully in the near future, it will, we can also produce a different sponge material, uh, which is really good. Uh, in the protein community, our sponges, aren't like a true sponge where you squish all the water out of, and then a sponge, you know, Ray expands these sponges.

You can squish all the water out of them and they maintain that flat shape until water is added back to them. So that's found particular interest, uh, in different medical device uses as well as with the department of defense in the U S. Um, 

Wyatt Archer: [00:26:55] can you tell us why the department of defense would want sponges like that?

Justin Jones: [00:26:59] Yeah, you know, so the, the, the group that I'm working with, and this is a, uh, public knowledge, um, they are trying to stop. Uh, boat attacks on Naval vessels, right? And right now the current technology is that you use a machine gun to stop boats that are approaching vessels. And what they found is the vast majority of those vehicles are simply, or our boats are simply approaching the vessel to ask for a drink of water.

Or to get directions home, nothing that warrants a lethal response. So they've come up with some non-lethal responses to stop a boat away from our, our us military vessels, but they're Kevlar and they're plastic and they're that kind of thing. And they're polluting the ocean. You need to imagine the volume of, of that material you would need to, to protect a warship would be quite high.

So what we're involved with is the, the alternatives to plastic. How do we've come up with an alternative material that will stop a boat? Um, yeah. The plastic I eat will biodegrade, uh, when it's, when it can in the ocean. Yeah. Yeah. Um, how, 

Wyatt Archer: [00:28:02] how does a sponge stop 

Justin Jones: [00:28:03] a boat though? That's a really good question.

And, and it's one. I don't have the answer to. Um, but you can imagine if you can squeeze all the water out of it, uh, and have it maintain a very small shape, then it becomes very deployable, right? You can launch this thing in front of an incoming vessel. Um, and then that sponge, because it's made out of spider silk or even these hagfish proteins, we now have going on in the lab, um, they will entangle the propeller and just essentially make it the propeller stop, acting like a propeller and stop the forward progress of the boat.

Yeah, but it's definitely not a standalone system, right. It would be a part of something else. 

Wyatt Archer: [00:28:42] So it could like spider silk lead to other discoveries of just being like listens by yourself, goes great. We've learned about these properties and now we're going to make something completely different. We know what to look for now or something like that.

Justin Jones: [00:28:54] Yeah. Yes. And it has. Um, and for us that happened, uh, about three years ago. Um, you know, we, we were, at that 0.3 years ago, we were really, really struggling. We'd worked on spider silk for so many years. The goats could only produce so much protein bacteria was really. Not producing very much protein at all and was very difficult to produce.

And silkworms were the only thing that were capable of producing silk, but we knew we engineered our systems in particularly our bacterial systems very well. And so the Navy approaches with a, a project, uh, and asked us to express these hagfish proteins. Uh, using our knowledge and our 25 plus years of experience at doing this, uh, and turn it into a fiber and see what we could do.

And we made just absolutely breakneck progress on the project, uh, because we knew what to do with each and every step. And so it turns out these hagfish proteins are, are very different than spider silk proteins. Number one, there are only about 65 kilodaltons in length. So they're very much smaller than, than spider silks.

Um, They are, are very, very much less reliant on glycine and alanine. And they're also very, very much. Re, uh, repetitive, then you find inspire yourselves. All things we've checked as problems with producing and heterologous hose. And so when we put those proteins into our bacterial systems that we would normally use to produce spider silk, instead of getting a hundred milligrams per liter of bio-reactor, we were getting eight and 10 grams of protein per liter bioreactor, uh, which is just phenomenal.

It's a phenomenal level of production. Uh, which is great, cause we can't produce enough spider silk to satisfy the Navy, but what these proteins producing at eight to 10 grams, we can satisfy, uh, the applications of the Navy in order to do that. We've also found another, a variety of different hydro gel forms of this material, uh, which has, uh, interest to the Navy, uh, but also interest, uh, from the medical community.

Uh, Yeah. Can you describe 

Wyatt Archer: [00:30:49] a hagfish 

Justin Jones: [00:30:50] a hagfish is a very old thing, um, that that has not been completely classified yet, but basically they're Marines grant scavenger. Uh, they look somewhat like an eel, um, with kind of a funky circular mouth. Uh, and what they do is they, they, anything dies and falls to the bottom of the ocean.

They go down there and they prey upon that. Well, what they've done though, over. Okay. There millions of years of evolution as they have come up with a very ingenious adaptation to being preyed upon. So when a shark comes up and bites, these hagfish, they very quickly exude a voluminous slime that clogs the sharks gills, and there's some great videos on YouTube you should watch.

And what that does is now the shark is suffocating, right? It can't move water across it skills. So it has to release the hagfish go shake its head clear that slime from the gills, um, in order to be able to breathe and not. Very effective. Right? Uh, so the slime itself is very, very interesting. How do you have something packed inside the skin of a hagfish in, in probably what is Mo uh, microliter quantities and have it expand up to 30,000 times its original volume.

A split second, uh, and then mechanically be able to perform to clog the gills with predator. Well, it's very interesting. If you look at the slime, it's actually reinforced by these filaments inside the slime. When you take those filaments out of the slime, you stretch them out a little bit and you allow them to dry.

They are nearly as strong as before. Uh, yes. And so that's potentially one of the Navy's interest is can we take these proteins and create them in a heterologous host, so bacteria in our case. And can we duplicate these types of material properties, uh, in the fibers?  

Wyatt Archer: [00:32:31] I think it's just fun that like it's seems like it's been easier to make.

Progress towards defensive applications with the creature that uses the proteins as a defensive mechanism, as an offensive mechanism or a predatory one. Yeah. 

Justin Jones: [00:32:53] Um, 

Wyatt Archer: [00:32:55] so this is joint research agreement with a sports apparel company. I know you can't talk much about it, but I guess like, would I be wrong to assume that this is like specialized.

Um, sports apparel for maybe like Olympic level athletes or like some kind of extreme sport. 

Justin Jones: [00:33:12] It could be all the above, but what, what, and it's not limited to my, my research partner on this project. What there's a big push in the world, right. To get rid of plastics. And when you look at what people are wearing to go work out, most of it is made of plastics.

Right. And what happens to that? And so this company is very, forward-looking, uh, probably the most forward-looking company that's ever approached me. Um, and they understand the time it takes in order to develop, you know, a completely new line of product. Where you would be developing it out of transgenic, silkworms expressing a spider silk gene.

Uh, and how do you, you know, what are the mechanical properties it has to have? How do you knit it or weave it to make it perform like the old petrochemical derived, uh, plastic materials. Um, and they've just been an absolutely a great company to have as a partner on this, this trip. Yeah. 

Wyatt Archer: [00:34:03] So it's only been in the last couple of years that I've realized that like, oh, it's a really hot day.

Like a cotton shirt is going to be your best friend. And like polyester is a mistake. Yeah. Sad. I didn't know that sooner, but, um, what are the properties of plastic that, um, oh, sorry. No. What are the properties of like plastic fabrics, like polyester that, um, spiders. Can also handle 

Justin Jones: [00:34:29] yeah. It virtually all of them.

Um, you know, and that's one of the things we're learning. Um, as we genetically engineer these silkworms, when we produce different strains of them is we can mimic a wide range of different plastic materials. Uh, we don't even fully know the extent of that range yet. Uh, cause you know, with our joint research agreement, we're, we're focused in on a couple of different specific properties, you know, something similar to elastic.

Can we produce that using a yeah. Yeah. So, uh, you know, we don't fully know yet where that's going to come in. Um, but, uh, we'll, we're looking forward to figuring it out here in the next year or two. Yeah. 

Wyatt Archer: [00:35:02] Yeah. So you've mentioned that it's green a lot and green is like often using a lot of marketing stuff for people to feel, not so bad about being like mass consumers and when those products aren't even actually that green.

Right. Um, despite her silk have the potential to actually like be green. Yeah. Because like, yeah, just because the product isn't going to like break down into microplastics in our wastewater doesn't mean it doesn't take an incredible amount of energy 

Justin Jones: [00:35:32] to produce. Yeah, no, no, you're exactly right. Uh, and it's something we paid attention to.

Um, and, and so you're right. The process of producing recombinant a spider silks in bacteria, I would hesitate to call that process entirely green until it was, you know, refined to a great deal. Right. You were recycling. Recycling medias and ingredients and, and heat exchanging and doing that. Silkworms on the other hand, I have no problem arguing the greenness of that material.

Um, because they're fed Mulberry leaves. They're, you know, they're raised, uh, our environment is going to be much different than what's going on now. Um, but even then the energy consumption won't be that great, uh, in order to, uh, produce the silkworms and then the soap soap silkworms we'll spend the silk forest and then all we have to do is harvest it and we're not using harsh chemicals to do so.

We're not even using, you know, very high temperatures of heat. Uh, and it's an automated, automated process. So, um, we're not at least with a silkworm process. We're not adding anything back to the environment in terms of, uh, you know, CEO or CO2 emissions, uh, in that entire process. So 

Wyatt Archer: [00:36:36] once like the alfalfa or the bacteria production process get like refined and they're like, like a well-oiled machine, what makes it green at that point?

Justin Jones: [00:36:46] I think it's going to take a fair amount of research and development, uh, to make the process green, right? Because like I mentioned, you know, and just using alfalfa as an example, uh, you know, purifying stuff in the laboratory is relatively straightforward. Now translate that to produce enough material, to make a golf shirt, uh, forever.

Golfing male in the United States. And that's an entirely different scale, uh, that is going to consume energy. It is going to require some light chemicals. Um, so it's going to take refinement of those process. You're gonna establish those processes, then you're going to figure out how do we make this better to the point where, you know, you're pretty comfortable calling a green product.

And also with alfalfa, you know, we're only taking one protein out of the entire plant. All the rest of that can be utilized as feed or, or to produce, uh, ethanol or something like that. Yeah. 

Wyatt Archer: [00:37:34] I have no idea. I'm just saying. So, um,

So before you were the leader of this research group, Randy Lewis was, um, if you were to look back on like the, the evolution of spider silk technology, how do you see like those roles? 

Justin Jones: [00:37:49] Yeah, obviously I hope over, over the course of my career that we actually get some of these problems figured out. Uh, and that's definitely my goal.

Uh, My department of defense contracts, as well as my joint research agreements, um, you know, is how do, how do we solve some of these key problems such that, you know, we can actually start putting something out there, uh, that people can use. Um, so my hope is, is, is over the course of my career and hopefully much shorter than that in the next 10 years, um, that we've actually got something to market.

Um, and, and that, that, you know, you can actually go buy off the shelf and use, um, but. It's not going to be the end all to be all either, right. As we make those improvements, that's going to lead us down new rabbit holes. If you will, of, of particularly applicable research to different applications.

Wyatt Archer: [00:38:38] Thank you for listening to this episode of instead it was produced and edited by me. Wyatt Archer, with the help of , Brigitte Hugh as part of our work in the office of research at Utah state university.