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Scientists Look to Spiders for Hi-Tech Fibers

• Michelle Bryner via LiveScience
The unanswered questions behind a spider’s cunning ability to spin silk, which is tougher than any man-made material, have hampered its use in everything from medical tools to next-generation electronics. Now scientists think they have the tools to unlock these secrets – opening the door to better brain implants, new drug-delivery systems, and degradable and flexible electronics.

Silk – the fiber spun by silkworms and spiders – has a lot going for it. It’s stronger than any synthetic material, rivaling even bulletproof Kevlar. It’s also flexible, durable and biodegradable, and can withstand extremely high temperatures. Until recently, however, much of silk's potential has remained relatively untapped.

Two big challenges stand in the way of creating synthetic silk that rivals that made by insects, said David Kaplan, a biomedical engineer at Tufts University in Massachusetts.

The first challenge, Kaplan said, is to figure out how to reverse engineer the spider's silk, essentially turning back the clock to an earlier step in the process when the silk is just a soup of chemicals.

The second challenge is to figure out how to make enough of the silk. “Assuming we continue to see this progress in using silks in all sorts of materials, you’re going to have to find ways to produce more silkworm silk as well as spider silks. And at least by today’s technology, we’re not there," said Kaplan, who is a co-author of a new review paper about the state of the silk-making field.

Hi-tech silk

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