If you’re a regular reader of Food For Mzansi’s weird and wonderful stories, you would know there are many peculiar scientific and agricultural innovations out there. From Pope Francis’s chickens feeding on leftover communion wafers to scorpion farming. Another trend will have you gasping for air: goats producing spider milk.
A United States scientist and professor at Utah State University, Randy Lewis, has bent the laws of nature by creating what might have seemed impossible, spider goats. Wait. Before you jump off your chair, this doesn’t mean that there is an animal out there that is half goat and half spider.
It simply means the professor created a genetically modified goat at a farm that produces large quantities of spider silk that is among the strongest substances known to man.
Wondering why Lewis created this unique goat? It is all because he wanted to harvest spider silk. However, spiders are difficult to farm. They are cannibalistic and territorial, making it impossible to milk them – or rather, silk them on farms.
Instead, researchers can transfer genes from spiders into other organisms, and use those creatures’ natural processes to produce proteins.
Silk stronger than glue products
According to an article by the Utah State University, the primary organisms Lewis uses for this synthetic silk production are bacteria, silkworms, alfalfa, and goats (the proteins turn up in their milk).
“These silk protein adhesives can be up to 20 times stronger than a commercial product like Gorilla glue. However, where Gorilla Glue is rigid, spider silk proteins offer elasticity without forfeiting strength, allowing them to bear greater pressure without breaking.
“The silk coatings will stick to pretty much anything, and are in development for medical implants, like catheters and micro-sutures,” reads the article.
Lewis has since become a spokesperson of this experiment which has caught the world’s attention. He claims that it poses no harm at all to the animal.
The BBC crew visited Lewis at the university’s farm where they breed these goats. He tells them the experiment doesn’t transform the animal into anything else. It simply produces silk milk. “They are normal goats, healthy like any other,” he assures.
Lewis has worked on other potential hosts for the golden orb silk gene, including transgenic alfalfa, silkworms, and even E.coli bacteria (a rapid reproducer). But goats are his trophy silk producers. The others are merely experimental backups.
What’s the deal?
Spider silk has a number of environmental benefits as it is produced without the harmful impact of microplastics. According to an article by Clean Tech, these are some of the benefits:
- the ability to biodegrade without the harmful impacts of microplastics;
- protein inputs are sourced sustainably from plants, bacteria, silkworms, goats, and yeast.
- it is less energy-intensive when compared to the production of synthetics.
The article further reveals that the global synthetic spider silk market is expected to reach $19.8 billion in 2026.
“The synthetic spider silk market is thriving as consumer demand grows for sustainable alternatives to toxic chemicals. The European Union was the largest exporter of chemical products in 2019, providing a promising market for innovators looking to scale up production, but currently, the US is leading the growth of synthetic spider silk,” reports Clean Tech.
Asked about the fortunes that come with this type of farming, Xolisani Booi, a goat farmer from George in the Southern Cape, jokingly tells Food For Mzansi he would score a fortune if they would insert spider genetics in his goats.
However, he is aware that this would be a lot more technical and difficult than one can even begin to imagine.
“I think this would be very difficult for us here in Mzansi. We don’t have this kind of technology. I guess we would have to wait until it develops in the country. But we are also a conservative country. I doubt that people would buy the meat coming out from our farms, regardless if the goats have been injected with the spider genes or not,” says Booi.
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