Bulletproof Skin: It Has Been Done!

Updated: Jul 25

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 [3]. 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 [3].

Silk’s biomedical applications include surgical sutures, knitted meshes (e.g., for hernia), garments for dermatological conditions, and much more, thanks to its biocompatibility [4]. 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” [6]. 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 [7]. 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,” [7] but was pierced when the bullet travelled at the full 329m/s [7]. 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 [10].

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 [10]. 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 [10].

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 [11].

Editors

Kaz Shuji, Winnie Lui, Rhea Verma

Designer

Web design by Majd Al-Aarg

Additional Credits

Cover photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

References

  1. Murray J, Mohamad-Fauzi N, Cooper CA, & Maga EA. Current status of transgenic animal research for human health applications. Acta Scientiae Veterinariae [Internet]. 2010 [cited 2021 Jan 10];38(2):s627-s632. Available from: https://www-scopus-com.proxy.bib.uottawa.ca/record/display.uri?eid=2-s2.0-79958756195&origin=resultslist&sort=plf-f&src=s&st1=goat+milk+AND+silk&st2=&sid=7e70c308c4c2f99b327b4b400fa2357c&sot=b&sdt=b&sl=33&s=TITLE-ABS-KEY%28goat+milk+AND+silk%29&relpos=10&citeCnt=6&searchTerm=

  2. Lipiński D, Zeyland J, & Słomski, R. Biopharmaceutical production in transgenic animals. Medycyna Weterynaryjna [Internet]. 2007 [cited 2021 Jan 10];63(3):261-265. Available from: https://www-scopus-com.proxy.bib.uottawa.ca/record/display.uri?eid=2-s2.0-33947593394&origin=resultslist&sort=plf-f&src=s&st1=goat+milk+AND+silk&st2=&sid=7e70c308c4c2f99b327b4b400fa2357c&sot=b&sdt=b&sl=33&s=TITLE-ABS-KEY%28goat+milk+AND+silk%29&relpos=12&citeCnt=1&searchTerm=

  3. Scopus. Nexia refocuses spider silk fiber programme. Advanced Composites Bulletin [Internet]. 2004 [cited 2021 Jan 10]; NOV:10. Available from: https://www-scopus-com.proxy.bib.uottawa.ca/record/display.uri?eid=2-s2.0-9744247623&origin=resultslist&sort=plf-f&src=s&st1=goat+milk+AND+silk&st2=&sid=7e70c308c4c2f99b327b4b400fa2357c&sot=b&sdt=b&sl=33&s=TITLE-ABS-KEY%28goat+milk+AND+silk%29&relpos=13&citeCnt=0&searchTerm=

  4. Holland C, Numata K, Rnjak‐Kovacina J, & Seib FP. The biomedical use of silk: Past, present, future. Advanced Healthcare Materials [Internet]. 2018 [cited 2021 Jan 10];8(1). Available from: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/adhm.201800465

  5. How are bulletproof vests made? [Internet]. Kernersville (NC); Tex Tech Industries: c2021. 2020 [cited 2021 Jan 10]. Available: https://textechindustries.com/blog/how-are-bulletproof-vests-made/

  6. What is Kevlar? [Internet]. Wilmington (DE); Kevlar: c2021. 2021 [cited 2021 Jan 28]. Available: https://www.dupont.com/what-is-kevlar.html

  7. Phelan J [Internet]. Boston (MA); GlobalPost: c2021. ‘Bulletproof skin’ made from spider, human tissue (video); 2012 [cited 2021 Jan 11]. Available: https://www.pri.org/stories/2012-01-30/bulletproof-skin-made-spider-silk-human-tissue-video#:~:text=A%20new%20tissue%20made%20of,Korea%2C%20Germany%20and%20the%20Netherlands

  8. Skin [Internet]. Cleveland (OH): Cleveland Clinic: c2021. 2016 [cited 2021 Jan 11]. Available: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/10978-skin#:~:text=Keratin%3A%20Keratin%20is%20the%20main,protection%20that%20your%20skin%20offers

  9. Waugh R [Internet]. Kensington (UK); Daily Mail: c2021. Bang – you’re not dead! Amazing video shows bio-engineered ‘bulletproof’ human skin reinforced with spider silk; 2012 [cited 2021 Jan 11]. Available: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2094364/Bio-engineered-bulletproof-skin-human-cells-spider-silk-revealed-video.html

  10. Farivar C, & Bowen K [Internet]. Bonn (DE); Deutsche Welle: c2021. Dutch artist creates ‘bulletproof’ skin with spider silk; 2011 [cited 2021 Jan 11]. Available: https://www.dw.com/en/dutch-artist-creates-bulletproof-skin-with-spider-silk/a-15330421

  11. Mikocki L. Bulletproof skin made from spider silk proteins and human skin cells [Internet image]. 2013 [cited 2021 Jan 11]. Available from: https://www.designboom.com/art/fusing-skin-cells-with-spider-silk-for-bullet-proof-skin-by-jalila-essaidi/

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