The US Army has earned a reputation for out-there experimental projects. The latest is a $1 million contract for a genetically modified “spider silk” material that could hypothetically be used for protective armor, even underwear, for soldiers.
The contract was made with Kraig Biocraft Laboratories (KBL), a bioengineering company that intends to genetically modify silkworm and spider silk into high-performance polymers. This particular project, called Dragon Silk, calls on Kraig "to design, produce, and deliver additional recombinant spider silk materials tailored for the protective needs of our soldiers," according to a press release from KBL.
"We will be working closely with our sponsor agency to match the performance of our spider silk to their specific use cases and protective applications," KBL COO Jon Rice said in the statement. "The potential uses of spider silk are nearly limitless, but one of the greatest honors is being able to apply our technology to serving those who dedicate themselves to serving and protecting all of us."
The original contract was an exploratory $100,000 one, inked in summer 2016. In May, KBL showed off "shoot packs" of their genetically modified silk to Army officials. The Pentagon must have liked what they saw to give KBL 10 times as much money for their continued research.
"When I founded this company it was with the dream that one day we would work with the US Army to produce ultra-high strength materials in support of our warfighters," added founder and CEO Kim K. Thomson. "The Army's exercise of its option under our agreement validates that dream. Our team is honored to be working on this noble project and we intend to provide this very important customer with the very best high strength polymers using our recombinant spider silk technology."
The intent of making genetically-modified spider silk underwear is to protect the crotches of US soldiers, a sentence you probably didn't expect to read when you woke up this morning. Genital injuries were common among those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, as improvised explosive devices (IEDs) explode from the ground-up.
Only the best is intended to protect the troops — such as silk produced by genetically modified silkworms. While silkworm silk is nowhere near as strong as that of spiders, silkworms are much better-suited to silk production because they live in colonies (unlike solitary spiders, who frequently kill other members of their own species for food).
However, silkworms modified to produce spider-strength silk can create a durable, highly flexible material that can absorb a large amount of energy. While it's not quite as durable as kevlar yet, it may well be someday — the University of Cambridge successfully produced a synthetic silk that had more tensile strength than steel earlier in August.