'Smart Silk' In Quantity

Oxford University researchers have figured out how to force silkworms to produce large quantities of silk using a natural defense mechanism of silkworms.


(A major step towards the large-scale production of silks with tailor-made properties)

Professor Fritz Vollrath and colleagues from the Oxford Silk Group at Oxford University's Department of Zoology collected silk directly from paralysed silkworms by injecting a chemical that is naturally produced by the animal. In the wild silkworms produce this hormone when they are injured since, as they move their bodies through hydrostatic pressure, without this self-induced paralysis their wounds would get worse and they would risk 'bleeding out'.

The team's report in the journal Biomacromolecules this week concludes that, in comparison to unparalysed silkworms, paralysis allows longer and more consistent silks to be collected by eliminating the ability of the silkworm to break and alter its silk fibre.

Until now, it has not been possible to reel in hundreds of meters of silk under full control, which would be needed if harvesting tailored "smart-silks" with a variety of useful properties.

Dr Alex Woods, an entomologist and Oxford-based medical researcher responsible for the original discovery said: 'importantly, this may allow us to make high-quality silks with a variety of desirable mechanical properties, in practical quantities, to finally expand this exceptionally well-suited biomaterial into key medical applications.'

Robert Heinlein dreamed about something very similar - large quantities of spider silk with uniquely tailored properties: he called it synthetic spider silk - in his wonderful 1939 short story Misfit.

The problem was as follows: what could you use to make the roof of an inflated structure on an asteroid? You would want the lightest possible material, since you were boosting it from Earth.

Libby concentrated for an instant, then looked puzzled. "But look -- This valley is a thousand feet long and better than five hundred wide. At half of fifteen pounds per square inch, and allowing for the arch of the roof, that's a load of one and an eighth billion pounds. What fabric can take that kind of a load?" "Cobwebs."

"Cobwebs?"

"Yeah, cobwebs. Strongest stuff in the world, stronger than the best steel. Synthetic spider silk...

Via University of Oxford.

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