London, Aug. 27 (Reuters): Scientists say they may have worked out how spiders and silkworms are able to produce such strong fibres to spin their webs and cocoons.
They say that if they are right, their research could be used to produce silk in the laboratory for extra-strong protective clothing, sports equipment and even replacement bone tissue.
Silk is the strongest natural fibre known to man but scientists have yet to replicate its strength. They have managed to purify silk into powder but have not been able to turn it into material.
“The problem is that when people take these purified powders and try to make useful materials, they fall well short,” said David Kaplan, professor of biomedical engineering at Tufts University in Massachusetts.
Kaplan and his team say the secret to silk production lies in how spiders and silkworms control silk protein solubility in their glands.
“The entire process is controlled by the amount of water, which is so simple,” he said.
“The organism dumps protein into the gland but as it does that, it regulates how much water it leaves in there. That controls the entire process.”
He said the research, published in this week’s edition of science journal Nature, could have far-reaching applications, particularly in medicine.
Bioengineers at Tufts have already developed a strategy for using silk to repair damaged knee ligaments and say it could also be used to make artificial bone tissue.
Kaplan said some companies had expressed an interest in using silk to make ultra-strong clothing, hiking gear and outdoor equipment.