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A modern-day Silk Road is emerging, and traffic on it is building up.

These explorers aren’t traversing routes across continents, but instead are seeking scientific and agricultural alchemy to produce a sort of holy grail in apparel: commercial amounts of spider silk.

Spider silk is a multi-purpose fiber able to be transformed into surgical bandages, sports gear, musical strings, or body armor, says David Brigham, founder and CEO of EntoGenetics in Charlotte, NC. The military uses, in particular, motivate Brigham, a biochemist and geneticist by training. “Soldiers need better, lighter protection,” he says.

Spider silk has long been the ultimate textile target. Its beauty was coveted by royalty; Louis XIV of France supposedly had gloves, stockings, and even a full suit made from the weaves of the golden orb spider of Madagascar.

These days it’s the silk’s strength—touted as five times as strong as steel, and as tough as Kevlar but more elastic—that’s attracting attention. Stopping a runaway train from flying off the tracks using spider webs may not only be the realm of Hollywood.

But replicating that material on a scale useful for a modern-day superhero, or mere mortal, has been elusive. Spiders don’t really take to being domesticated for farm work (they get restless minutes into the “milking” process and tend toward cannibalism), so it’s difficult to harvest enough thread for a commercial apparel operation.

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