The new plant-based material is an important alternative to the short-lived plastics used. Developed as an alternative to disposable plastics, vegan spider silk can also be produced at home.
The researchers said the plant-based, lab-made material, similar to spider silk, could replace single-use plastics used in many consumer products.
The material, developed in the University of Cambridge study, uses a new, energy-efficient approach to combine plant proteins into materials that mimic silk at the molecular level.
This is done by replicating the structures found in spider silk, one of nature’s strongest materials, using soy protein isolate, a protein with a completely different composition.
“Since all proteins are made of polypeptide chains, under the right conditions we can make plant proteins self-assemble like spider silk,” said Professor Tuomas Knowles.
Knowles said that when spiders weave webs, the silk proteins dissolve in an aqueous solution that becomes a strong fiber with the minimal energy-requiring spinning process.
SPIDER SILK IMITTED WITH PLANT PROTEIN
The researchers needed to find a way to dissolve these proteins in a spider-like fashion so that they could be reassembled in a way that mimics the properties of spider silk.
However, plant proteins do not dissolve very well in water. But researchers have developed an energy-efficient, environmentally friendly method to dissolve soy protein isolate in a mixture of water and acetic acid. After the process is complete and the solvent is removed, the soy protein isolate is reassembled into a water-insoluble, plastic-like film.
The paper’s lead author, PhD candidate Ayaka Kamada, said:
Little is known about the self-assembly of proteins, and it is exciting to know that we can find alternatives to single-use plastics by filling this knowledge gap.
The study showed that the material has durability equivalent to high-performance engineering plastics such as low-density polyethylene. However, unlike many plastic films, it can be composted at home as no chemical changes are made to the natural building blocks and no toxic elements are added.
The new product will be launched by a company called Xampla, an extension of the University of Cambridge, focused on developing replacement products for single-use plastics and microplastics. Later this year, the company will launch several disposable products that will replace the plastics used in laundry detergent capsules and dishwasher tablets.
Co-author of the study, postdoctoral fellow and head of research and development at Xampla, Dr. Marc Rodrigues Garcia said: “Other researchers are working directly with silk instead of plastic, but these are still animal products.
THEY FOUND VEGAN SPIDER SILK!
In a way, we found ‘vegan spider silk’: We produced the same material without the spider.
“It’s exciting to be a part of this journey. The world has a very, very big plastic pollution problem and we’re in a lucky position to be able to do something about it,” Garcia added.