Swedish researchers advance spider silk

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In Sweden, researchers have addressed two of the challenges inherent to synthetically producing spider silk: “clumping” that reduces the amount of silk available for spinning, and weak threads that ultimately require additional processing.

Anna Rising and Jan Johansson of Spiber Technologies, in collaboration with researchers in Europe and China, first created a hybrid of silk proteins from two different spiders that would better dissolve in water. Previous work had encountered problems with clumping because at high concentrations the silk was not dissolving efficiently in water.

The work, published in Nature Chemical Biology, also involved cutting down on processing steps by trying to emulate natural spider spinning as closely as possible. Rising and Johansson replaced chemical spinning–which is typically done with methanol that can prevent the formation of “native-like,” three dimensional structures–with a machine that induced pressure similar to spider’s silk glands.

The resulting fibers were still not as strong as real spider silk, but the researchers claim theirs was the strongest synthetic spider silk ever produced without additional processing. They believe they can improve the silk’s strength by spinning narrower fibers.

Applications for synthetic spider silk include clothing and medical devices.