By Joelle Lim
Scientists have found new uses for spider silk that may revolutionize the future for a variety of fields.
Spider silk has been utilized for items such as cloths, parachutes, and even hot air balloons. They are also used in more scientific applications, including human stitches, and have replaced synthetic fibers for tissue engineering. The reason why it has grown popular is due to its properties. Spider silk is only one tenth the diameter of human hair, yet it is several times stronger than steel, proving it to be a durable material. Another notable quality includes its elasticity since spider webs need to be stretchable in order to absorb the kinetic energy of its insect prey. That is why it’s 98% water!
An insect caught in a spiderweb
However, spider silk can often be difficult to obtain because spiders are cannibals so they would not thrive under farming conditions. Each individual spider also produces only a scarce amount of silk. Therefore, researchers have turned to artificial means of producing large quantities of the material. At the RIKEN center for sustainable Resource Science, scientists have found a way to artificially derive silk from arthropod species and genetically engineer the bacterium to produce the MaSp1 Protein which is important because this protein is important for giving the silk its strength. Overall, the surface and internal structures of the fibers in the artificial silk matched that of the natural silk produced by the spiders.
The production of artificial spider silk not only accurately replicates natural spider silk, but is also efficient. It is made up of common materials such as water, silica, and cellulose that are easily accessible and affordable. Chemical solvents are also not required for producing these fibers at room temperature, so they are more practical than synthetic fibers which can only be produced at high temperatures. Two recent applications of spider silk include biocompatible lenses and synthetic glue.
The project began with a team of researchers from Tamkang University and National Yang Ming University in Taiwan who envisioned creating lenses with spider silk material. They began by collecting smooth silk from Pholcus phalangioides spiders. Their objective was to create biocompatible lenses for biological imaging applications. After producing the optical lens, they found that it induced a photonic nanojet, a beam used for biomedical imaging that covers a large area and possesses a high resolution. The photonic nanojets were able to be optimized by adjusting the time of the silk under the resin drip. Thus, the researchers could achieve their desired type of imaging.
Image on the left depicts a Pholcus phalangioides spider. Image on the right depicts biological Lens made from its silk
Researchers at the Manchester University in England found another use for spider silk in synthetic glue, a promising alternative to commercial adhesives. Unlike the production of biocompatible lenses which used natural spider silk, the glue used artificial spider silk made by coaxing harmless bacteria, a process similar to the fermentation of beer. The synthetic adhesives made from silk soon replaced other alternatives such as collagen (from animal hooves), casein (from cheese), and gluten (from grain) which come from natural proteins. In 2010, the silk glue totalled $41 billion and still continues to increase in the global market.
A close up shot of the spider silk used in synthetic glue
To summarize, spider silk has many practical applications and has proven to be both an accessible and durable material! Other interesting applications include clothing, seatbelts, biodegradable bottles, and artificial tendons. Through these promising qualities, it paves the way towards a more sustainable environment.
Check out this video of spider silk being created! https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=9&v=jlaY2vY7zSE&feature=emb_title
American Institute of Physics (2020, July 28). Spider Silk Can Create Lenses Useful for Biological Imaging. Phys.Org.
Matchar, Emily (2020, July 28). New Artificial Spider Silk: Stronger Than Steel and 98 Percent Water. Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/new-artificial-spider-silk-stronger-steel-and-98-percent-water-180964176/
Purves, William K (2020, July 28). Why Is Spider Silk So Strong? Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-is-spider-silk-so-str/
RIKEN (2020, July 28). Spider Silk Made by Photosynthetic Bacteria. Phys.Org. https://phys.org/news/2020-07-spider-silk-photosynthetic-bacteria.html
Robinson, Ben (2020, July 28). Scientists Stick to Spider Silk for Biodegradable Alternative to Traditional Glue. Phys.Org. https://phys.org/news/2020-07-scientists-spider-silk-biodegradable-alternative.html
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