A New Material Made From Spider Silk and Trees Could Replace Plastic

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The future may no longer be in plastic, but rather a combination of spider silk and tree pulp. Amy Johansson/Shutterstock

From raindrops in the Rockies to the very food on our plates, we've woven a tangled web for ourselves out of plastic.

It's strong and flexible and cheap. It's also a choking hazard for the planet.

But new research from Aalto University and VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland suggests there may be a way to unravel this mess — with a little help from spiders, and our go-to environmental heroes, trees.

In a paper published in Science Advances, the scientists claim to have developed a new material by sticking cellulose fibers from wood to the silk protein found in spider webs. The result? A strong, flexible material that could do everything plastic does better — except, of course, clog up the planet.

The biomaterial is so effective, researchers are hailing it as a possible replacement for plastic in everything from the medical and textile industries to packaging.

"We used birch tree pulp, broke it down to cellulose nanofibrils and aligned them into a stiff scaffold. At the same time, we infiltrated the cellulosic network with a soft and energy dissipating spider silk adhesive matrix," Pezhman Mohammadi from VTT notes in a press release.

In other words, they dug into nature's cookbook to combine just the right ingredients to create a material that does all things plastic — but, since it's entirely biodegradable, it goes back to nature when its job is done.

Now, the trick may be to scale up the stuff to the levels of plastic. How many hard-working spiders would we need to scale up production to rival that of plastic? How about none at all?

For their research, the Finnish scientists didn't use a single thread of spider silk, but rather produced webbing from bacteria with synthetic DNA.

"Because we know the structure of the DNA, we can copy it and use this to manufacture silk protein molecules which are chemically similar to those found in spider web threads," lead researcher Markus Linder of Aalto University explains in the release. "The DNA has all this information contained in it."

fly caught in spider web
Spider silk must be not just sticky, but also strong and stretchy to prevent escapes. (Photo: Nechaevkon/Shutterstock)

Still, let's face it. Plastic isn't going to break a sweat just yet.

Since the 1950s, when polymers really started to gain traction among consumers, annual production has increased by 200 times. In 2015 alone, we churned out more than 380 million tons of it.

But new biomaterials like this hybrid of spider silk and tree pulp, as well as more concerted international efforts to curtail single-use plastics may poke enough holes in its wrapper to let us breathe a little easier.

Or perhaps, at least, we might get a much-needed third option at the grocery store: P aper, plastic ... or spiderweb?