The U.S. Army is ramping up funding for an experimental technology -- genetically modified spider silk -- that could be used to make more protective armor and underwear for soldiers.
The service this month exercised an option on an existing contract with Kraig Biocraft Laboratories Inc., based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to continue developing a product called Dragon Silk for potential military applications.
Specifically, the agreement, now valued at about $1 million, calls for Kraig "to design, produce, and deliver additional recombinant spider silk materials tailored for the protective needs of our Soldiers," according to a press release from the company.
"We will be working closely with our sponsor agency to match the performance of our spider silk to their specific use cases and protective applications," Chief Operating Officer Jon Rice said in a statement. "The potential uses of spider silk are nearly limitless, but one of the greatest honors is being able to apply our technology to serving those who dedicate themselves to serving and protecting all of us."
The Army has tested various types of silk-based fibers to improve soldier protection. In recent years, it awarded contracts to develop blast-resistant underwear featuring silk and Kevlar-like material after hundreds of service members incurred genital-related injuries from improvised explosive devices in combat zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Defense Department’s Trauma Registry reported that 1,378 male service members incurred injuries to the genitals and other parts of the genitourinary tract between 2001 and 2013 while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Of 965 cases examined, 65 had severe injury to the penis or amputation, Dr. Jean Orman of the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research and the Joint Trauma System reported in December 2014 at the Bob Woodruff Foundation.
Kraig's product is made from silkworms that have been genetically modified with spider DNA to weave stronger silk. Spiders spin incredibly strong silk -- an order of magnitude stronger than that of silkworms -- but they won't do so in colonies because many are cannibalistic, according to an article by Laura Geggel, a senior writer for Live Science.
And while spider silk isn't as strong as Kevlar, it's more flexible, so the Army wants to see if Kraig's product can absorb more energy than Kevlar, according to an article by Patrick Tucker at Defense One.
The company plans to open its operational headquarters in Quang Nam province in Vietnam, where it plans to produce its transgenic silkworm technology on 50 hectares of land.