by Erin Halcomb
NAME: Randy Lewis
VOCATION: Professor of microbiology
MARRIED: To his
high school sweetheart
CURRENT FUNDERS: National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, Air Force
BREAKTHROUGHS: Sequenced genes for several Rocky Mountain arachnids, including cat face, garden, wolf, jumping, and brown widow spiders.
KNOWN FOR: Wearing gray or tan Wranglers.
FAVORITE TIME OF DAY: Lunch. “It’s the one hour that I have to myself, to sit and think.” He usually eats a piece of fruit – because, he says, it’s mindless.
Like many other Wyoming natives, Randy Lewis enjoys bird hunting, fly-fishing and the rural life. The 40 ewes that graze his pasture south of Laramie are show sheep, carefully bred to have muscular loins and a wrinkle-free hide. Lewis has gallons of goat milk in the fridge. But he doesn’t drink it; he uses it to spin spider silk.
Stronger than steel and stretchier than nylon — the toughest fiber in nature — spider silk has been coveted by humans for centuries. In 1709, a Frenchman made socks from the egg sacs of spiders. Modern researchers envision even more extravagant uses: bulletproof vests, surgical thread, and, because the human body does not reject spider silk, artificial limbs. But mass production is a challenge: Spider farms tend to erupt in hairy sweatshop violence, the workers fighting and then feasting on one another.
Lewis, a professor of microbiology, has created an alternative to that cannibalism. He has decoded the genetic information of the proteins in spider silk, cloned the genes, and spun silk fibers from proteins produced in bacteria and goat’s milk. His 19 years of research have brought $7.2 million to the University of Wyoming and an estimated 78 students into his labs.
“What I hope we can do is understand exactly how the spider silk properties are generated by the protein, so we can design a protein and say, ‘It’ll have this much elasticity and this much strength,’ ” says Lewis. He speaks in a hurry, like a man with a mind that never stops.
At home, Lewis keeps tabs on the arachnids outside — where they are, how many eggs they lay. But he squashes the ones that venture indoors, with a pragmatism rooted in his childhood. He and his three siblings grew up on a barley and hay farm in Powell, Wyo., bottle-feeding lambs in the bathroom. Their dad died when Randy was 9. Their mom worked as a nurse, and Randy, the oldest, often shot duck for the dinner table. “We all looked up to him,” says his sister, Cindy Lewis, adding, “We were really careful about eating ducks from Randy. We were always having to spit out the BBs.” Randy’s responsibilities didn’t keep him from chasing after knowledge, however. “I always say, he’s the smartest person I’ve ever known,” Cindy says. Several times.
After graduating from the California Institute of Technology, Lewis received his Ph.D. at the University of California in San Diego. While studying ways to produce silkworm silk from bacteria (something he later concluded wasn’t economically viable), he came across Army reports on spider silk, published in 1968. He was already on the faculty of the University of Wyoming, and he applied for an exploratory grant. Within a year, Lewis had identified one of the two proteins that make up “dragline” silk — the strongest of six varieties of spider silk. When a spider climbs a bedpost, it secretes dragline silk for security. This safety rope, which can support 400,000 pounds per square inch, is still the focus of Lewis’ research.
Over the years, Lewis has decoded five varieties of silk, and is working on the sixth. He’s cloned and sequenced the genes of over 34 species of spider, grown plants that produce spider silk, and is working on consistency in the spinning process. But Lewis also applies his brains to less serious questions. When the Canadian Broadcasting System asked him if Spider-Man’s web-spewing escapades were feasible, Lewis analyzed a scene from the movie. He concluded that Spider-Man could not have consumed enough calories and protein in a 24-hour period to supply as much silk as he used.
Cindy, like her brother, talks at a rapid boil. She says Lewis is “pretty darn amazing. He cooks. He sews.” Lewis once made Cindy a quilt, and has sewed sleeping bags and tents. Perhaps one day he’ll thread his needle, even his fly rod, with spider silk.
The author is an HCN intern© High Country News