Technology

Artificial Spider Silk Is The Holy Grail Of High-Tech Fabric, And It's Almost A Reality

When it comes to supermaterials, spider silk has got it goin' on. It's got the tensile strength of steel and can stretch nearly twice its length without breaking, putting manmade materials like Kevlar to shame. So why aren't we making stuff out of it? Because creating artificial spider silk in useful quantities has proven exceedingly difficult—but we're getting really close.

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With Great Power Comes Great Scalability

In great enough quantities, spider silk could be used to make building materials, body armor, and even ultra-durable performance clothing. And on its surface, harvesting silk from the spiders themselves doesn't seem that farfetched; we do it with silkworms to make regular silk, after all. But spiders are much harder to work with than silkworms, and so far, any attempts to make fabric from natural spider silk have been painstaking. In 2012, London's Victoria and Albert Museum displayed an 11-foot spider-silk cape that took four years and 1.2 million spiders to produce. Clearly, silk from spiders is a non-starter. The little guys are far too free spirited for factory life.

Related: The Golden Silk-Orb Weaver Spider Can Eat Birds... And Repair Nerve Damage With Its Silk?

Synthetic spider silk is the next best option, but even that has been a huge challenge. Some scientists have tried spinning their own in the lab, and others have tried genetically engineering silkworms with spider DNA. So far, no method has produced fibers that are cheap or plentiful enough to scale to usable quantities.

The spinning device that created the artificial spider silk, as described in the study published in Nature Chemical Biology.

The Latest Breakthrough

In a 2017 issue of Nature Chemical Biology, researchers announced that they may have found a reliable and inexpensive way to create large quantities of spider silk. You see, spider silk starts as a liquid protein solution, only turning into its super-strong final product after entering a narrow duct where the spider's acidic silk glands turn it into a solid fiber. Anna Rising and Jan Johansson at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala mimicked this process.

Related: Would You Wear Clothing Made From Hagfish Slime?

First they created their own protein solution with the help of genetically modified E. coli bacteria. Then they did what spiders do: they pumped it through a "duct"—in the form of a glass capillary—into an acid bath. The result was a long string of continuous fibers measuring no more than 20 micrometers in diameter. The researchers were able to make an entire kilometer of the stuff. That's not enough to start a silk factory, but it's definitely getting there.

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Written By
Curiosity Staff
April 4, 2017