Creativity with Spiders - Silk Part II
What is the strongest material on Earth? Did you think of a metal such as steel? Would it surprise you that the pound-for-pound strongest material is a naturally produced substance by a Chelicerate, members of the Arthropod phylum? You all may know of the cobwebs you'll find in the corners of your basement, or the ceilings in your living room. This same material is considered the strongest on Earth!
As seen in my previous post, spider silk is a complicated mixture. The types of silks produces serve different functions throughout the spiders lifetime, from releasing a long thread for 'ballooning' as spiderlings to making the protective egg sac once the female produces eggs. Silk is durable, flexible, and lightweight. These factors make spider silk a prime target for biological engineering. Spider silk and web construction have been used to model and construct man-made items, ranging from fashion to electrical wiring to buildings.
People have been trying (and so far failing) to create a material that behaves like natural spider silk. The product produced would be able to withstand various stresses, retain flexibility and durability, and be extremely light weight. The practical uses and the mechanical potential of spider silk has caught the eye of the USA military departments. Bullet proofing materials is relied upon in hostile situation, yet Kevlar 49 fiber is relatively bulky had puts extra weight on those who wear it.
Using silk is actually nothing new on the battle fields. Silk vests were issued to ancient Chinese soldiers for protection against arrows. Now, we have goat milk that has been genetically engineered to produce spider silk proteins! Once these proteins are spun into thread, the resulting fiber is recorded to be ten times stronger than steel! Interestingly enough, the creativity in spider silk application in a military setting does not stop there. A team between the Dutch and the Netherlands is actually working on genetically engineering a 'bullet-proof human' - think of Superman. By replacing the gene that codes for keratin, the structural support for the toughness of human skin, with these spider silk proteins, the team hopes to produce a skin that is close to bullet-proofing. Through there will be some time before this is even a possibility, the lab trials are able to stop a low-speed bullet.
As strange at these human applications may seem to us today, who would have thought in the 1700's that we would be able to accomplish such tasks as being connected globally to a wireless internet or sending satellites out into space to capture images and data from objects light-years away from our own planet. Our knowledge base is still growing, and creativity, innovation, and curiosity will continue to drive the way we perceive the world, leading us to new discoveries every day. Who knows what our future holds.
M. Lee (ed.), Remarkable Natural Material Surfaces and Their Engineering Potential, 145. DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-03125-5_13, © Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2014