Iowa Writes

REX DUKE
Gossamer Goats (Part 1)


The cloth hanging in the American Museum of Natural History in November of 2009 was impressive for neither its size nor its beauty.  At just 11-feet long, the tapestry was elegantly spun and a vibrant gold, but remarkable more for its production than its aesthetic.  Over four years, women in Antananarivo, Madagascar's capital, collected 3,000 golden orb spiders per day.  Back at the factory, the workers then pulled the spiders' silk filaments from their spinnerets and placed them in groups of 24 in a harness while a spool extracted the remaining thread.  Although arduously slow, the process progressed smoothly, as the golden orb's silk is, per weight, seven to ten times stronger than steel, and never once did a thread break on the loom.

Although skilled weavers, these arachnid workers are fickle.  Only female spiders produce silk, and, if left to their own devices, they cannibalize.  Moreover, the silk produced in the winter months or during rainy stretches is too porous to be of any use.  Because of these difficulties, large-scale commercial endeavors to harness the spiders' silk had been stochastic and largely unsuccessful.  Nicholas Godley, a fashion designer, Madagascar resident, and co-creator of the cloth, told a reporter, "If we were doing all of this to make money, I could think of much, much easier ways to do it."  Professor Randy Lewis, a geneticist at Utah State University, would agree with Godley's economic analysis but might fault his process.  Because if you want a cloth of golden orb silk, there are much, much easier ways to do it.

The cloth hanging in the American Museum of Natural History in November of 2009 was impressive for neither its size nor its beauty.  At just 11-feet long, the tapestry was elegantly spun and a vibrant gold, but remarkable more for its production than its aesthetic.  Over four years, women in Antananarivo, Madagascar's capital, collected 3,000 golden orb spiders per day.  Back at the factory, the workers then pulled the spiders' silk filaments from their spinnerets and placed them in groups of 24 in a harness while a spool extracted the remaining thread.  Although arduously slow, the process progressed smoothly, as the golden orb's silk is, per weight, seven to ten times stronger than steel, and never once did a thread break on the loom.

Although skilled weavers, these arachnid workers are fickle.  Only female spiders produce silk, and, if left to their own devices, they cannibalize.  Moreover, the silk produced in the winter months or during rainy stretches is too porous to be of any use.  Because of these difficulties, large-scale commercial endeavors to harness the spiders' silk had been stochastic and largely unsuccessful.  Nicholas Godley, a fashion designer, Madagascar resident, and co-creator of the cloth, told a reporter, "If we were doing all of this to make money, I could think of much, much easier ways to do it."  Professor Randy Lewis, a geneticist at Utah State University, would agree with Godley's economic analysis but might fault his process.  Because if you want a cloth of golden orb silk, there are much, much easier ways to do it.

In the early 2000s, Lewis mapped and cloned the key proteins in golden orb silk and licensed the technology to the biofirm Nexia Biotechnologies.  Instead of synthesizing the silk in a lab, though, the company genetically engineered goats whose milk contained the same proteins found in the silk.  These proteins were then extracted, processed, lengthened, and pressed into a tight zig-zag formation.  The resulting silk could support a fully-loaded jet, stretch to 20 times its original length, and maintain its integrity in temperatures ranging from -20 to 330 degrees Celsius.  Nexia eagerly fantasized about the silk's commercial applications, from biodegradable fishing line to a new generation of bullet-proof vests, and investors responded with comparable enthusiasm; Nexia's $42.4 million IPO was the largest in Canada's history.  By October of 2002, the firm had 1,500 goats spread over three generations.

Although Nexia was the only company to successfully produce fibers from goat's milk, the production process never became financially viable, and Nexia eventually went bankrupt in 2009.  Lewis, however, took his bio-husbandry skills to Utah State University, which now keeps a more conservative herd of about 30 goats.  The goats, which have endearing names like 'Freckles' and 'Pudding,' produce thick, soupy milk, a gram of which produces 9,000 metres of silk.  But, to fully understand how spider silk came to pass through goat udders, one has to travel back in time, to when Freckles himself was no more than a cell.

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

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REX DUKE

Rex Duke just finished his second year in the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program.




Gossamer Goats will appear on the Daily Palette in two parts.  Be sure to check back tomorrow for Part 2!

This page was first displayed
on June 13, 2016

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