Scientists hope to soon be able to spin spider silk without the aid of spiders—achieving an age-old human quest to harness one of nature’s most remarkable materials.

Randy Lewis is a professor of molecular biology at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. His team of researchers has successfully sequenced genes related to spider-silk production—uncovering the formula that spiders use to make silk from proteins. In the process the team acquired a better understanding of how the silk’s structure is related to its amazing strength and elastic properties.

Their next task will be using what they’ve learned to spin spider silk themselves.

“Hopefully in the next month we’ll start spinning fibers,” Lewis told National Geographic News.

Scientists don’t completely understand how spiders spin liquid protein into solid fibers. With their spinnerets, spiders somehow apply physical force to rearrange the proteins’ molecular structure to turn the proteins into silk.

Understanding how spiders do this could someday result in new stronger and lighter materials that could replace plastics—and ease the cost to the environment that results from conventional plastic production. But duplicating spider silk in the lab has proven difficult.

More here.