Transgenic spider-goat hybrids may sound like the premise of a made-for-SyFy movie, but it’s a concept that’s very much grounded in reality, with plenty of real-world applications to spare. Prized for its off-the-charts elasticity and strength, spider silk has an abundance of untapped potential, from artificial ligaments and tendons to bulletproof vests. The trick is amassing enough raw material. While spider farms are not unknown, the eight-legged critters have a tendency to kill one another, whether out of territoriality or nuances in arachnid social etiquette we’re not privy to. That’s when someone decided to bring in the goats.

Golden Orb Spider

Photo by mbarrison

HERE’S LOOKING AT YOU, KID

With his team of researchers, Randy Lewis, a professor of molecular biology at the University of Wyoming developed a way splice the spider’s silk-making genes into goats, so the protein can be harvested from their milk. “When the goats have kids, and they start lactating, we collect the milk, and we can purify that spider silk protein in much, much higher quantities,” Lewis tells the Science Nation, a publication of the National Science Foundation, which helped fund the research.

The silk-making protein can be harvested from the milk of the transgenic goats in much higher quantities.

Because of the vagaries of the genetic lottery, not all the goats wind up with the spider gene. Of the seven kids (three sets of twins and one single) born in February, only three are would-be web-slingers.

Of course, any endeavor that involves animals or genetic engineering is bound to find itself knee-deep in an ethical quagmire, but Lewis insists that the transgenic goats are no different in health, appearance, or behavior “In lots of ways, these goats are a lot more pampered because they are very valuable,” he says.

Alfalfa

SPIDER ALFALFA

But PETA may be able to breathe easier in the future. Even large quantities of silk might be possible if the web-producing gene can be introduced to alfalfa plants.

The silk-making gene could one day be introduced to alfalfa plants.

Widely grown across the country, alfalfa also produces a whopping protein content of between 20 and 25 percent. And after the silk protein is extracted? The rest of the alfalfa plant can be converted into biofuel. Or, you know, fed to goats.

[Via Science Nation]