In Canada, plans to harness the silk produced naturally by the spider as a raw material for the textile trade are well under way. The company concerned is Nexia Biotechnologies, which is eager to point out that it hasn't actually filled a factory full of spiders busily spinning for the production line, but instead has made careful laboratory analysis of the chemical composition of spider silk and can now synthesise the material.

Also involved are the cutting-edge genetic engineering techniques, which employ the services of another species - the African pygmy goat.

The techniques developed by Nexia Biotechnolgies' boffins require the genes that allow the spider to become a spinster to be implanted into the DNA of the goat. The protein required will then find its way into the goats' milk from which it can then be recovered and spun into thread suitable for the manufacture of textiles.

Why should scientists go to all this trouble to produce something as structurally frail as a spider's web? The answer is that the apparent delicacy of spider silk is deceptive. According to tests carried out by Nexia Biotechnologies, spider silk is one of the strongest of all bio-materials with a tensile strength ten times that of steel and a break strength 3.5 times that of any known paramid fibre.

Nexia Biotechnologies has reputedly invested more than 25 million dollars over the last decade to turn experimental production of the fibre it will be marketing as BioSteel into a commercially viable project. A trio of farms has been established, two on the outskirts of Quebec and the third across the American border in New York state where the goats still essential to the process can be reared.

Nexia refuses to be drawn about precisely when it will be ready to market BioSteel or indeed as to which areas of the technical textiles trade it will be targeting the product's initial sales campaign.

However, it does state that the funds to carry forward development work for a further two years are already in place - which suggests that it will be ready for launch by 2005, if not earlier.

By Sonia Roberts.

To view related research reports, please follow the links below:-

World Textile Chemicals to 2004

World Textile Fibers to 2003