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Two Powell Graduates are Renowned UW Spider Silk Researchers

May 14, 2009
Two men and a spider
University of Wyoming Professor Randy Lewis lets a tarantula crawl on his shoulder while research scientist Michael Hinman watches. Although Lewis and Hinman went to Powell High School at about the same time and were inspired by the same science teacher, it was not until years later they met in the UW College of Agriculture's Department of Molecular Biology. (Josie Lorimer Photo)

By Josie Lorimer, UW Journalism Senior

The science bug bit Randy Lewis as he carried out chemistry experiments while attending Powell High School (PHS) in the late 1960s.

A couple years later, the same bug bit another PHS student, Michael Hinman.

The two wouldn't meet for nearly 15 years, but the story of how one PHS science teacher influenced both of their lives, the story of how they ended up in the same University of Wyoming laboratory and the story of their internationally known spider silk research prove equally fascinating.

Lewis, who graduated from PHS in 1968, is a professor in the UW College of Agriculture's Department of Molecular Biology, where he and his team of scientists and graduate students are researching spider silk proteins in hopes of producing a superior fiber that could one day be used to make artificial ligaments and tendons, improved sutures for eye surgery and nerve repair and bulletproof vests having the potential of being stronger yet lighter than ones made of Kevlar.

Prior to focusing on spider silk proteins, Lewis concentrated his UW research on protein hormones an area of science that fascinated a young University of Oregon Ph.D. chemistry student by the name of Michael Hinman.

Hinman who graduated from PHS three years after Lewis learned about the Lewis studies at UW while attending Oregon. Shortly after earning his doctorate in 1984, he sent a job application to Lewis and was hired.

That's when the two learned they not only shared the same scientific interests but had both graduated from PHS and had both been heavily influenced by the same high school chemistry teacher, the late Louis Kohnke.

Kohnke taught at PHS from 1935 until 1976, and Lewis and Hinman were teacher's assistants (TAs) in his chemistry laboratory.

Lewis said Kohnke allowed students to get involved in experiments and "play in the chemistry lab." He added the class was fun because Kohnke, though offering guidance and answering questions, "let you do what you wanted to."

Lewis said Kohnke was a major factor in his decision to study chemistry at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, where he obtained a bachelor's degree in 1972. He then earned master's and doctorate degrees in biochemistry from the University of California, San Diego.

Hinman said he was equally influenced by Kohnke. "As TAs, we were encouraged to do scientific projects. We had all kinds of fun in there."

Shortly after Hinman joined the Lewis lab, Lewis became interested in spider silk research while consulting with a biotechnology company in San Diego.

The research started by removing spider glands to develop a library of genes, Lewis said. His team then found the progression of genes and the possible makeup of proteins. Information was gathered on the genes desired for different properties.

Hinman said different silks can be genetically engineered to get different properties like strength and elasticity for the cloned protein. Spiders can produce up to six kinds of silk with very different mechanical properties. These silks can range from strengths greater than Kevlar to elasticity greater than nylon.

The Lewis lab has now cloned and sequenced genes for the proteins comprising all six of these silks.

The current research is focused in three areas, Lewis said.

The first is to continue studying the proteins for the last silk as well as the glue used in the web.

Second, the team is creating synthetic genes expected to both imitate and have properties different from the natural silks.

Third, these silk proteins are being produced in bacteria and other systems. For example, proteins are grown in alfalfa, and they are also separated from the fats in goats' milk.

The proteins are spun and stretched into fibers that are hoped to be stronger, lighter and more elastic than today's fibers.

There are many people awaiting research results of the Lewis laboratory. Among them is Evelyn Lewis of Powell, the mother of Professor Lewis. "I think the research will be wonderful when it works out," she said.

Lewis hopes the research leads to improved materials in three areas.

Medically, the fibers could be used to make artificial ligaments and tendons, which are now only available from cadavers. The silk could also be used for sutures, making finer eye surgery and nerve repair possible. The fibers could also be used for tissue regeneration in bones and some ligaments so the area is not completely immobile while repaired.

The fibers could also be used to make body armor including protective vests for peace officers, soldiers and others stronger yet lighter. These fibers could cut the weight of protective clothing in half, maybe even by two-thirds, Lewis said.

Noting spider silk is more elastic than nylon, Lewis said the research could produce fibers for parachute cords that would absorb energy to prevent collapsing and stabilize parachutes.

There could be other applications, too. For example, airbags made with these fibers would work like a spider web, absorbing energy instead of blasting drivers and passengers back into their seats. This would also make it safer for children to ride in the front, Lewis said.

"Although it has taken a large amount of research to reach the point we are at now, I am very optimistic that products based on spider silk proteins will be on the market in a couple of years," Lewis said.

Editor's note: Josie Lorimer of Afton, a senior majoring in journalism at the University of Wyoming, is the primary author of the story. Robert Waggener is an editor in the UW Cooperative Extension Service and College of Agriculture.


Posted on Thursday, May 14, 2009

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