Press Release: Looped Ribbon Silk
Recluse Spider Spins Microloops To Enhance Silk Toughness
The brown recluse spider, infamous for its necrotic venom, now has another reason for notoriety: it spins an elegantly looped strand of silk inspiring the next generation of ultra-tough fibers.
Spider silk has interested scientists and engineers for decades, for being 5 times as strong as steel by weight, and even outperforming Kevlar in toughness. The College of William & Mary professor Hannes Schniepp, graduate student Sean Koebley and their collaborator Fritz Vollrath from the University of Oxford have now discovered that the recluse spider (Fig. a) uses yet another trick to make its fibers even tougher: its microscopic spinneret (Fig. c) has a built-in high-speed sewing machine that continuously introduces tiny loops into the fiber, about 500 per inch (Figs. b,d). These loops are amazingly strong, but will eventually open, one after the other, when the fiber is pulled. What came as a surprise to the researchers is that the loops make it much harder to rupture the fiber, opening the door to novel fiber engineering.
In previous attempts with synthetic materials, the addition of loops caused premature fiber failure. Observation of the recluse spider provided the breakthrough solution: unlike all other spiders, its silk is not round, but a thin, flat ribbon. The ribbon shape adds the flexibility needed to prevent premature failure, so that all the microloops can provide the additional toughness to the strand. Schniepp and his colleagues also showed that the approach of adding loops indeed enhances the toughness of a synthetic tape (Fig. e), which opens the door to new fiber technology mimicking the brown recluse. Using computer simulations, the team showed that mass production of fibers with a large enough number of loops will increase the toughness hundreds of times, with countless possible aerospace and defense applications, for instance to reduce the brittleness of carbon fibers, in impact absorbing structures, parachute cords, or to protect from space debris and micrometeorites.
Media Coverage of This Work
On TV, Video, and Radio Interviews
|Feb 2017||Discovery Channel Canada] airs a TV feature of our brown recluse looped silk discovery in their science show Daily Planet (7:00 pm show on February 15).|
|Feb 2017||The Daily Press interviews Prof. Schniepp as part of their front page story on our paper (video and printed interview).|
|Feb 2017||BBC radio interview: On Feb. 20, the BBC aired a 5-minute radio interview with Prof. Schniepp on the group's recent breakthough on the looped recluse silk. Now available here (The Naked Scientists).|
|Feb 2017||ABC Australia radio interview: On Feb. 24, the BBC interview was also aired on the other side of the world. Now available here (The Naked Scientists).|
|Feb 2017||The Naked Scientists, a British science podcast, features Prof. Schniepp's BBC interview on their web page, including a written story and images: link.|
In Print Media
|Feb 2017||The Daily Press (Hampton Roads newspaper), front page, "Recluse spider silk could hold the key to space-age materials"|
|Feb 2017||Chemistry World (The Royal Society of Chemistry), "Spider silk strength is in the loop"|
|Feb 2017||Oxford News (University of Oxford), "Deadly spider’s spinning technique could inspire tougher materials"|
|Feb 2017||Inside Science (American Institute of Physics), "Loops Give Extra Toughness to Recluse Spider Silk"|
|Feb 2017||Seeker, Venomous brown recluse spiders produce incredibly strong web silk that could be copied for multiple uses, including snagging space junk: "Deadly Spider Sews Industrial-Strength Silk Strands"|
|Feb 2017||W&M News, "The brown recluse spider engineers extra-strong silk by spinning loops onto a flat strand"|