Scientists Harvest Deadly Spider Silk

Threads are five times stronger than Kevlar

Mar 10, 2014
Outside Magazine

   Getty Images

Don’t mess with a brown recluse spider. They've been known to eat each other and kill humans.

But the poisonous little arachnids produce a silk that scientists and companies covet for commercialization. Unlike other spiders that produce cylindrical silk, the recluse makes a sticky flat ribbon that’s five times stronger than Kevlar. Scientists describe it as sticky like packaging tape, and hope to use it in everything from bullet proofvests and computer electronics, and even as a coating for implant materials.

One spider, endearingly named “Rabbit,” is the subject of a study recently published in Advanced Materials. Researchers say she produces the most reliable and exquisite silk for commercial use.

"Essentially we can 'milk' the spider for its silk under controlled conditions," says scientist Hannes Schniepp, assistant professor of applied science at William & Mary. "That allows the silk to be placed, measured and tested for strength."

But harvesting the silk and using it is not an easy venture. "The protein is insoluble in water and the fiber is so fine—1,500 strands are needed to make a thread—that firms have had to invent new spinning systems," Chemical & Engineering News' Alex Scott explains. "After years of trying to develop commercial spider silk, big companies including DuPont and BASF have dropped out, with the latter pulling the plug on its research just last year."

If this spider thing works out, we’re looking at commercial output for fiber-products and textiles by 2016.

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