Welcome to the Protein Revolution

Stronger than steel and more flexible than nylon, spider silk may be humankind’s most important new material.

Posted: Feb 22, 2017

The Lexus Kinetic Seat Concept is incredibly groundbreaking for several reasons, not least of which is its materials: the backrest threads are made from synthetic spider silk.

Lexus designers chose to explore spider silk protein due to its surprisingly robust and versatile qualities: it’s stronger than steel, tougher than bone, and twice as flexible as nylon, which gives it superior shock-absorbance properties.

In doing so, Lexus design teams are embracing a futuristic, nature-inspired material that aims to revolutionize the textile industry. When developing the Kinetic Seat Concept, Lexus worked with an ambitious biotech start-up, called Spiber, that considers the material to be one of the planet’s greatest untapped resources.

“We are looking at many examples of creatures in the biological world that use protein materials: our hair, our nails, the wool of sheep, and of course the silk of spiders,” explains Spiber’s Director and Executive Officer Junichi Sugahara.

The company has pioneered a high-tech method for genetically engineering its futuristic threads—using a mix of molecular design, gene synthesizing, fermentation, spinning, and prototyping—a process that, unlike petroleum-derived nylon and polyester, avoids a negative environmental impact.

The end result is already making manufacturing waves. Spiber made the world’s first synthetic spider silk dress in 2013, complete with a sleeveless silhouette made from a handspun cobalt-blue material it called QMONOS. Its prototype MOON PARKA, a gold-tinged outdoor spider silk jacket developed in collaboration with sportswear company Goldwin—distributor for The North Face in Japan and South Korea—was also unveiled in 2015.

And although the apparel industry is a major target market for Spiber, other potential opportunities range from medical devices to lightweight automobile parts.

“Cars are currently made up of a lot of metal and iron, which is strong but very heavy,” says Sugahara. “If you were to add our fibers to plastic, you end up with a very light material that still has the toughness of traditional metal parts. Our dream is that cars all over the world will one day contain synthetic spider silk.”

Photos by Go Itami