Spider Silk: A New Alternative to Plastic and Kevlar?


Have you ever been walking through the woods and found yourself with a face covered in a spiderweb? If you have, you know once they stick to you, they’re a pain to get off. But why is that? Well, one reason is spider silk is stronger than steel — five times stronger, in fact. Something this strong can be used to stop a jet.

Spider silk is thinner than human hair, and the thousands of tiny nano-strands making up a single thread are said to have a diameter of 20 millionths of a millimeter. You might be wondering why this is so important. The reason? Its strength makes it incredibly versatile.

This silk is five times stronger than steel and also more elastic than rubber and tougher than Kevlar. On top of those three important qualities, the silk is antimicrobial and extremely flexible.

Use for silk

In ancient Greece, people used spider silk on wounds to stop the bleeding. Now, scientists are beginning to research ways to put spider silk’s amazing qualities to use. Clothing, bandages, ropes, bottles, panels on motor vehicles, nets, seat belts, parachutes, thread, ligaments, tendons, and bulletproof vests are just some of the many ways it can be used. Unlike plastic, spider silk is biodegradable and an environmentally-friendly alternative.

While there’s so much potential for spider silk, there are downsides to it as well. Spider silk cannot be farmed like cotton or wool. It would take hundreds of spiders to produce a small square foot of cloth. In addition, the silk hardens when exposed to air, thus making it incredibly hard to work with. Spiders are also known for their cannibalistic tendencies and will eat other spiders if they are placed close together.

Goats replacing spiders?

Despite the challenges scientists are facing, they have begun to develop new methods to produce spider silk. In Canada, scientists used the silk gene and inserted it into goats. The goats would then begin to produce the same silk proteins in their milk. Similarly, scientists have also experimented with fungi and other plants to see if they could produce silk proteins.

Will spider silk begin to change the way products are made? Its unknown how far silk can be used and currently, the research to determine such answers is in its early stages, and it is too soon to tell.

Photo credits: The feature image has been taken by Jan S.
Sources: Lisa Zyga (Phys.org)

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