Spiderman And His Amazing Spider Silk
Every boy growing up watched in amazement as Spiderman was able to shoot webs from his wrists; pulling endangered motorist’s cars off of bridges before they fell hundreds of feet into icy water.
Crooks and bad guys, even those with superhuman strength, were tied up by Spiderman’s webs. Wonderment filled our heads, as we watched all the many possibilities of spider silk.
I remember wishing I could shoot those powerful spider webs at a schoolyard bully or be able to effortlessly swing from my house to a tree branch.
A Century’s Old Question
Apparently I am not the only one who has wanted to unleash the secrets of spider silk.
For decades, scientists have been studying spider silk hoping to unlock its mysteries and apply this knowledge to real world application.
Scientists are now closer than ever to answering the question,
“How does a spider spin a web of silk that is five times stronger, on a weight-to-strength basis, than steel; and how can we manufacture it?”
The Strength Of Spider Silk
Spider silk is five times stronger, on a weight-to-strength basis, than steel with about 1/6th the density.
Here’s a real world example displaying the strength of silk:
An 1881 Tombstone, Arizona gun fight gave us all an idea of just how strong real silk is. George Emery Goodfellow, a doctor of the times in Tombstone, AZ was examining the deceased after a gunfight. One of the men involved had taken a couple bullets to the chest, but the Dr. Goodfellow couldn’t find a single drop of blood on the man. As he removed his clothing he found a silk handkerchief holding two smashed bullets. Although the man has still died because of the force of the bullets, the silk handkerchief stopped the bullets from piercing the man’s chest.
Solving The Mysteries of Spider Silk
Over the last ten years scientists have unlocked a few portions of the spider silk puzzle, and hope to replicate it. We now know the key proteins used by spiders to spin their silk. Unfortunately, scientists have been unable to translate this knowledge into a technique that would enable the industrial-scale manufacturing of synthetic spider silk that is as powerful as the real stuff.
The problem has always been fairly fundamental. While scientists understood the substances or proteins used by these ingenious spiders, they couldn’t figure out the mechanics of how spiders combine those proteins to make spider silk. When they tried it in their labs, they got inferior products… Until now!
It turns out that a key part of the answer to this complex question is really pretty simple. It’s all in the timing… The timing of tiny globular structures.
Tiny Globular Structures
Scientist recently stumbled upon some unusual spider silk features, and a big part of the secret. These features happened to be tiny globular structures called “micelles” which when combined together formed larger and larger gel-like structures. These micelles happened to be the precursors to silk fibers.
Scientists now believe that they can take these micelles, and add some non-silk polymers to it to enlarge them and manufacture spider silk… But there is still one challenge.
The Next Challenge
Spiders control the water content of the gel to prevent the proteins from crystallizing until they are ready to spin the silk fibers. If the proteins crystallized too soon, the process would fail. Scientists are still trying to unlock this last part of the spider silk puzzle and replicate the process that nature has provided.
Real World Applications of Manufactured Spider Silk: Inspired By Spiderman
- Quick urban travel by rapidly firing thin strands of spider silk from building to building
- Biomedical devices like artificial tendons and ligaments
- Artificial skin for burn victims
- Binding captured criminals with a webbing
- Bomb stopping bulletproof vests
- Biodegradable bottles and packaging
- Blindfold an opponent with a thick blob of spider silk
- A super strong spider silk polymer for high performance aircraft or motor vehicles
- Super strong ropes, nets, seat belts, and parachutes
- A massive web cast across a street or alley to snare rapidly-moving persons or vehicles
Spiders are amazing creatures, and so is the silk they spin. Let’s hope scientists can figure out the last few pieces of the spider silk puzzle, so we can all live out our childhood fantasies of becoming Spiderman!