The United States' Navy and Utah State University researchers are working together to develop tools for non-lethal warfare. A $420,000 grant from the Navy has been awarded to USU’s Synthetic Spider Silk Lab.
USU researchers are developing a device that would wrap around the propellers of watercraft used by smugglers, pirates or terrorists. Biology professor Randy Lewis said the device would be designed to stop boats laden with explosives like the one that attacked the USS Cole in 2000.
“The idea is to stop them before they can get close enough to the ship to cause any damage,” Lewis said. “Provide something that’s strong enough and flexible enough to really entangle that propeller and basically shut the boat down.”
In the past, USU researchers have implemented a spider silk gene into bacteria, silkworms and goats to produce larger quantities of synthetic spider silk. For this project, the Navy is staying in the water and will be using hagfish slime and synthetic spider silk to create an extra sticky and strong material.
“It turns out that hagfish when they’re attacked or when they’re stressed exude a huge volume of slime,” Lewis said. “I have actually seen one in a lab. I would say that hagfish was not more than two-and-a-half feet long and it put out at least a half a gallon of material.”
USU biology professor Justin Jones is working with Lewis on the project. Jones said the new material will be tested next summer.
“We have some specific milestones we have to meet, both with the hagfish slime and with our spider silk-based materials,” Jones said.
For students pursuing careers in biology, Jones said this experience is rare.
“It’s very cool, it’s very unusual to have the Navy come in and want a project of this scale and of this nature so it’s a lot of fun,” Jones said. “Plus it involves a lot of our experiences from the last 20 years for how to produce these recombinant protein and combines all that experience into a new venue.”
Lewis has received previous Navy grants, totaling more than $1 million to develop waterproof fasteners and adhesives from synthetic spider silk.