If you have ever swatted a spider web away from a dusty corner of the house, congratulations—you have unknowingly dismantled one of the toughest materials known to man. The silk which spiders use to spin their webs and capture prey is five times stronger than steel, yet lightweight and more flexible than rubber. Because of these remarkable properties, scientists have been trying for years to produce large quantities of synthetic spider silk in the lab. They have notoriously run into problems, however, partly because experimental data about spider silk structure has been missing.

Now, Hannes Schniepp and his team have shown that spider silk gains its strength from thousands of microscopic ‘nanostrand’ fibers that stick together, much like a wire cable. The group examined the silk of the brown recluse spider at the molecular level with an incredibly sensitive microscope, which allowed them to visualize structures smaller than a fraction of a millimeter. Using this technique, they observed that the nanostrands—only 20 millionths of a millimeter in diameter—have a distinct ribbon shape and run parallel to each other lengthwise to form each silk strand. This structure is able to withstand much more force than a strand made up of a single fiber, giving spider silk its characteristic strength.

With the structure of brown recluse spider silk identified, scientists are better poised to create synthetic silk fibers. Some potential uses of silk technology gravitate towards the practical, such as lightweight and durable clothing and shoes. Other applications could have broader benefits to society. For example, the German startup company AMSilk recently announced plans to partner with aerospace engineers to develop silk-based materials for airplane production. The proposed airplanes will require less fuel and maintenance than current models, potentially making air travel more affordable and reliable.

Managing Correspondent: Benjamin Andreone

News Article: Spider silk is five times stronger than steel—now, scientists know why. Science

Original ArticleStrength of Recluse Spider’s Silk Originates from Nanofibrils. ACS Macro Letters

Image Credit: Pixabay

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