Spider Man was able to harness the awesome powers of the spider, and now scientists are hoping to do the same. Specifically, they want to develop super-materials using the black widow’s dragline silk as a blueprint.
Black widow dragline is superior to other spider silks due to a combination of incredible strength and unusual extensibility. Their silk is also unique in its ability to absorb enormous amounts of energy. Scientists are now unlocking the secrets behind this incredible material.
Biologists have identified the genes, and determined the DNA sequences, for key proteins in the dragline silk of the black widow. Researcher Cheryl Hayashi is a biology professor at the University of California, Riverside, and member of the research team who unlocked the sequencing.
Hayashi says they believe their findings will make it possible to synthetically reproduce the proteins by inserting the genetic sequences into host organisms such as bacteria, plants or animals. Afterwards the pure silk proteins could be harvested, and manufactured into silk fibers which would theorectically have the same amazing properties as spider spun silk.
"There's nothing quite as good yet as natural dragline silk, but we should get a lot closer now that we have the full genetic recipe," said Hayashi.
The UCR Office of Technology Commercialization has filed a patent application on the gene sequences. Currently, there are no products on the market based on the dragline silk of spiders.
Spiders manufacture dragline by using their silk glands to produce a "gooey" slurry of specific proteins, which are then transported to the spinneret through a duct, where the proteins interact to form the silk strands.
"The production of artificial silk is not quite there yet," Hayashi notes. "Now, with the full length genes known and as we learn more about theses two proteins, hopefully we will have a better shot at mimicking nature."
Spider silks have some of the most impressive mechanical properties of any known natural fibers. Artificial spider silk is being considered for surgical microsutures, specialty ropes, lightweight super-strong body armor, and high-tech athletic wear, among other uses.
* This research can be found in the online edition of the journal PLoS ONE.
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