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No, There Isn’t Bulletproof Spider-Silk Skin (Yet)

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Pictured: The Future

If you’ve been following the latest in materials technology, you’ve no doubt run into some intriguing articles about the bulletproof vest of the future: one constructed almost entirely from spider silk. Spider silk is one of the toughest, strongest substances in nature–stronger than Kevlar–but it’s also flexible and breathable, making it much easier to tolerate in hot weather and combat conditions than traditional body armor. Although these qualities have been well-understood for a long time, unfortunately spider silk has simply been too costly to be of practical large-scale use…until now.

In the last 10 years, however, scientists have created actual “transgenetic” goats, which are genetically engineered from spider genes to excrete a silk protein in their milk. This, then, can be refined and then spun into the body armor of any soldier or LEO’s dreams. Although it doesn’t appear that this technology has quite made its way into America’s military (at least, not that we know of), it’s pretty clear that this very science-fiction-y premise is about 10 years away from becoming mundane fact. Of course, if you’re a fan of science fiction your very next thought is likely something along the lines of “So how soon can I get a little transgenetic, and set myself up with some light, tough, breathable, bioengineered, bulletproof skin?” And the answer to that question is: Possibly sooner than you think.

In fact, this year Danish artist Jalila Essaidi embarked on her own expedition from the world of art into the world of science. Sadly, the headline on this article is a bit on the deceptive side: “This Bulletproof Skin is Made of Goat Milk Spider Silk.” Yes, there is actual human skin that has been enmeshed with actual goat-milk-derived spider silk, and it’s fascinating how Essaidi managed it. However, the skin itself isn’t really so much bulletproof as it is…bullet-resistant. It can sustain blows from underpowered (I’m assuming subsonic, although the article doesn’t specify) .22-caliber ammunition without tearing, but it doesn’t stop the bullet’s energy from transferring into internal structures. The artist herself is quite clear that, as per the linked article in this paragraph, “you would leave behind a ‘beautiful corpse’ with intact skin.”

In fact, Essaidi created the “bulletproof skin” in order to make an art installation that “explores the possibilities of biotech and its moral implications, especially amidst a rising ‘culture of fear’ brought by media coverage.” But does that mean that this idea couldn’t possibly find a future application doing exactly what that somewhat-misleading article headline posited? If I were a betting man, I wouldn’t bet against it.

And now, for your relevant Sunday-evening commentary from Paul Simon:

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