Mimicking how spiders make their complex array of silks could usher in a tapestry of new materials, and other animals or plants could be designed to be the producers
Peter Parker is lucky he was bitten by a spider and not a silkworm. Not only does “Spider-Man” have way more superhero panache than “Silkworm-Man,” but of all the silks made by various creatures, spider silk is the standout. Exceedingly strong, yet elastic and lightweight, spider silks are ideal for a range of materials, from bulletproof vests to scaffolding for growing cartilage.
Scientists are coming closer to unraveling spiders’ secrets with the hope of producing piles of the fiber to put to good use. While there’s progress in understanding spider silk genes and proteins, challenges persist. Silkworms were domesticated centuries ago and are content munching mulberry leaves in close quarters, but most spiders are both predators and loners. When crowded together, they often become cannibalistic, making them difficult to rear en masse. And while a single silkworm cocoon can yield 600 to 900 meters of silk, a spider gives up after spinning out only 130-odd meters or so.