One Big Step Closer to Synthetic Spider Silk

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CC BY-SA 2.0. Frank van de Velde

We nominate "spidroins" for word of the year. In addition to sounding awesome before you even know what it is, the word describes the proteins that are the secret to manufacturing spider silk.

Scientists are working to understand these proteins by mapping the genes for making them. The lead author of a new paper full of breakthrough discoveries says,

"When I say that we’d like to build a ‘web-shooter’ like Spider-Man’s in the lab, I’m only half joking.”

Spider silk properties continue to amaze and astound, the more we learn. They are lightweight, and yet one of the toughest natural materials. They are virtually invisible to the human immune system, making spider silk a natural material for medical uses.

Mankind already puts the magical threads to use, in applications as varied as weaving a golden cloak from natural spider silk to making dissolving tennis shoes out of a material invented while trying to mimic spider silk.

But it could get much better. Scientists at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania have sequenced the entire genome of the golden orb spider, one of the most productive of all spiders.

Understanding the gene expression will help figure out ways to mimic what the spiders do so naturally. The new genetic maps even suggest spiders may use silk in more ways than we yet fully know: some spidroins are made in the venom glands rather than the silk glands.

Even other species know to put this strong, lightweight building material to use - for example, hummingbirds use spider silk when building their delicate nests. Imagine the things we can make once we figure out how the spiders weave their magical webs.

Read the whole study in Nature Genetics