Tufts University bioengineers discover secret of spider, silkworm fiber strength

MEDFORD/SOMERVILLE, Mass. Tufts University bioengineers have discovered how spiders and silkworms are able to spin webs and cocoons made of incredibly strong fibers. The answer lies in how they control the silk protein solubility and structural organization in their glands.

"This finding could lead to the development of processing methods resulting in new high-strength and high-performance materials used for biomedical applications, and protective apparel for military and police forces," said David Kaplan, professor and chair of biomedical engineering, and director of Tufts' Bioengineering Center.

"We identified key aspects of the process that should provide a roadmap for others to optimize artificial spinning of silks as well as in improved production of silks in genetically engineered host systems such as bacteria and transgenic animals," said Kaplan, also a professor of chemical and biological engineering.

He and former postdoctoral fellow Hyoung-Joon Jin published their findings, "Mechanism of Processing of Silks in Insects and Spiders," in the Aug. 28 issue of the international science journal Nature.

The research was funded with $1 million from the National Institutes of Health Dental Institute and $200,000 from the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research. Kaplan collaborated with Tufts colleagues across the University from chemical, biological and biomedical to the veterinary and dental schools.

Silk is the strongest natural fiber known, but its strength has yet to be replicated in a laboratory. One reason may be the previous lack of understanding how spiders and silkworm process the silk.

The Tufts team has identified the way that spiders and silkworms control the solubility, concentration and structure of the proteins in their glands that spin the silk.

According to Kaplan, silk proteins are organized into pseudo-micelle or soap-like structures that form globular and gel states during processi

Contact: Craig LeMoult
Tufts University

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