Researchers from San Diego State University and Northwestern University have developed a model of the protein structures that produce Black Widow spider silk, a substance tougher than Kevlar, SDSU announced Monday.
If researchers could develop an artificial version of Black Widow silk, it could be used as a sturdy and biodegradable building material. However, scientists have yet to precisely determine how the process of producing spider silk works from beginning to end.
A pair of SDSU and Northwestern researchers found that the beginning of the silk production process is more complex than previously thought. The two published their work in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“Our team has been able to show that the silk proteins are indeed stored in the spider’s abdomen as nanoparticles that are composed of hundreds of silk protein molecules,” said SDSU associate professor of analytical chemistry Gregory Holland. “We have observed the nascent stages of fiber formation within individual silk protein nanoparticles.”
Holland collaborated with Northwestern chemistry professor and former UC San Diego researcher Nathan Gianneschi on the project. The two researchers, with partial funding by the U.S. Department of Defense, used different techniques to examine the structure of the silk. Holland used the same technology used in hospital MRIs while Gianneschi used a cutting-edge flash- freezing technique to examine the structures of the silk’s protein molecules.
Holland and Gianneschi’s breakthrough came from discovering that the silk is made from more complex structures than the spherical ones researchers have long hypothesized about.
“It was the combination of these two advanced methods that allowed us to put together a truly convincing story,” Holland said.
Further research is needed, the two researchers said, but the potential for spider silk is vast. A synthetic version of the silk could comprise anything from military and industrial products to a biodegradable plastic alternative, according to Holland.
— City News Service
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