Scientists Understand Strength of Silk

19 September 2003

A Tufts team has figured out how spiders and silkworms spin such strong silk, which could have far-reaching implications for everything from hospital dressings to body armor.

In a newly published study, Tufts researchers discovered the mechanism for production of strong silk, providing critical new information about nature’s strongest fiber. “The entire process is controlled by the amount of water, which is so simple,” Tufts’ David Kaplan, a professor of biomedical engineering who led the research team, told Reuters.

Spiders and silkworms both produce silk from a gel-like solution of proteins which is spun into silk fibers. Scientists have previously tried to replicate the process using similar protein solutions, but were never able to produce fibers with the same strength as real silk.

According to the Tufts team, spiders and silkworms regulate the mixture of water and proteins, controlling the entire process. The discovery helps explain how spiders and silkworms kept the gel-like proteins from solidifying too quickly, resulting in a permanent block in the organism’s spinning system.

“Kaplan and Hyoung-Joon, a postdoctoral fellow, copied the process in the lab, creating silk fibres by smearing the gel between sheets of glass,” reported the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

The Tufts research could give scientists a new approach to creating artificial silk. “We have identified key aspects to this process that should provide a roadmap for others to optimize artificial spinning of silks as well as in improved production of silks in genetic engineered host systems such as bacteria,” reported the Associated Press.

Kaplan says the discovery could have far reaching implications. “The finding could lead to the development of processing methods resulting in new high-strength and high performance materials,” Kaplan, who chairs Tufts biomedical engineering department, told London’s Guardian newspaper.

From clothing to military applications, artificial silk could be used to improve a wide range of products. Strong and flexible, silk can offer advantages over existing materials like aramid and nylon.

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