Scientists unravel secrets of strong spider silk

Last Updated: Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - 12:08

Washington: Spiders spin silk to use in webs and to suspend themselves.

However, the mysterious mechanics of what makes spider silk strong have baffled scientists for generations.

Now, German researchers believe that they have finally uncovered what makes it so tough.

They have revealed new information about the molecular structure that underlies the amazing mechanical characteristics of this fascinating natural material.

“Silk fibres exhibit astonishing mechanical properties. They have an ultimate strength comparable to steel, toughness greater than Kevlar and a density less than cotton or nylon,” said senior study author Frauke Grater from the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies in Germany.

“Because silk fibres continue to outperform their artificial counterparts in terms of toughness, many studies have tried to understand the mechanical characteristics of these extraordinary natural fibres,” he added.

Scientists know that spider silk fibres consist of two types of building blocks, soft amorphous and strong crystalline components.

Dr Grdter``s team wanted to develop a better understanding of the mechanical properties of spider silk fibres.

Grater``s team wanted to develop a better understanding of the mechanical properties of spider silk fibres.

For this, they implemented a multi-scale ``bottom-up`` computational approach that started at the level of the atoms that make up the amorphous and crystalline subunits and dissected the contributions of these building blocks.

They used both molecular simulations for studying individual and coupled subunits and finite element simulations for a comprehensive fibre model.

They discovered that the soft amorphous subunits are responsible for the elasticity of silk and also help with the distribution of stress.

The maximal toughness of silk requires a specific amount of crystalline subunits and is dependent on the way that these subunits are distributed in the fibre.

Different structural architectures of the fibre subunits were tested for optimal mechanical performance.

“We determined that a serial arrangement of the crystalline and amorphous subunits in discs outperformed a random or parallel arrangement, suggesting a new structural model for silk,” said Grater.

Taken together, the findings provide a clearer understanding of the mechanical nature of spider silk fibres and could be useful for design of artificial silk fibres, she added.

The study has been published on February 15 in Biophysical Journal.

ANI



First Published: Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - 12:08

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