Updated: Jul 25, 2021
Interdisciplinary artist Jalila Essaïdi, in collaboration with scientists and technicians, has successfully bioengineered and grown human skin containing spider silk that can stop a bullet at half speed [6,9], giving a futuristic glimpse into the potential of transgenic technology.
Author: Alexa Burry
The genetic engineering of animals for biomedical and human health applications is an increasingly impressive and promising industry. Transgenic animals have been available for nearly 40 years, having been first reported in the mid-1970s [1-2]. They yield a variety of products, including perhaps the most well-known example of artificial spider silk through genetically modified goats which produce the material in their milk . This breakthrough has allowed the cost-competitive production of a stronger, lighter, more biocompatible, and biodegradable alternative to its natural competitor, which is deemed to be proportionately five times stronger than steel .
Silk’s biomedical applications include surgical sutures, knitted meshes (e.g., for hernia), garments for dermatological conditions, and much more, thanks to its biocompatibility . This means silk does not produce a toxic or immunological response when introduced to living tissue. It also has diverse uses in non-medical items such as clothing, parachutes, and bulletproof vests. In particular, bulletproof vests currently employ Kevlar, an incredibly strong and heat-resistant synthetic fiber, alongside other strong synthetic fibers as the standard material [5,6]. The future could potentially see body armour entirely made of synthetic spider silk due to its lightweight, flexible, and ultra-resilient properties — that is, if manufacturers and scientists can genetically circumvent the short supply of spiders and their sometimes cannibalistic and self-isolating nature, which make farming difficult.
While this portion of the silk transgenic industry appears promising, it faces steep competition. More specifically, in 2011, it was first reported that artist Jalila Essaïdi, along with scientists and technicians in America, Germany, South Korea, and the Netherlands, have successfully grown “bulletproof skin” . For her project — entitled “2.6g 329m/s”, after the standard weight and speed of a bullet that a bulletproof vest is required to withstand [7,9,10] — Essaïdi took the ability to produce hybrid silk a step further . Using silk produced in Utah, spun into thread in South Korea, woven in Germany, and bioengineered into skin in the Netherlands, the resultant hand-sized sample contains a spider silk layer between the dermal and epidermal skin layers [8,9].
The skin sample then underwent ballistic tests during which Essaïdi shot it with rounds using a 0.22 calibre long rifle (see figure 1.0) [10,11]. It was reported that “the tissue successfully cushioned a bullet fired at half speed,”  but was pierced when the bullet travelled at the full 329m/s . Despite this, Essaïdi considers the experiment a success, stating in an interview that the next step will be to “transfer the bulletproof skin onto the body of the director of the bio-art museum” in the Netherlands .
Although the skin was not able to withstand direct impact from a bullet at full speed and is a long way from practical use, this breakthrough experiment begs many scientific, social, ethical, and political questions. How far can science go, and how far does humanity want to go, in pursuance of safety and the preservation of life? Are genetically modified humans containing the silk-producing genes of a spider in the skin-coding portion of their genome in the future? Can keratin, the main protein responsible for skin rigidity, be replaced with spider silk? Essaïdi says these discussions about playing with human genes and remarkably not-so-futuristic science are exactly what she sought to stimulate . While project “2.6g 329m/s” continues to evolve and push boundaries, Essaïdi says that, at the same time, her and her team will continue research into creating better skin for burn victims .
Q: What do you call a bulletproof Irishman? A: Rick O’Shea
It is with great pleasure that I have been allowed to feature Jalila Essaïdi’s images in this article. More information and images of her work “2.6g 329m/s” and others can be found on her website jalilaessaidi.com.
Figure 1.0. The above images display a 2.6g 329m/s bullet fired at half speed making contact with the bulletproof skin sample during ballistic tests and being stopped .
Kaz Shuji, Winnie Lui, Rhea Verma
Web design by Majd Al-Aarg
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