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Sunday, 24 May 2009





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New discoveries:

Silk's superpowers!


It's not just for spiders anymore. Silk threads woven by spiders could be used to make bulletproof vests and support structures for growing cells, among other materials in the future.


Spider-Man isn't the only person with an interest in spider silk. While Spidey uses the threads to zigzag from building to building, or to snare a bad guy, scientists are investigating silk for different reasons.

Spiders make many different kinds o

And though researchers have learned a lot about silk by investigating spiders, insects such as caterpillars, ants and bees also have been studied for the sticky stuff. Scientists are even trying to get silk from animals such as goats. Now isn't that really amazing?

It turns out silk might be good for weaving a lot more than shirts and ties. In the future, the silky fibre might be used to make supertough bulletproof vests and light, but strong parachute cords. Silk also might work well for delicate tasks inside the body. Researchers are experimenting with using silk to support growing cells, the same way a construction crew builds scaffolding (metal or wooden structures) around a building to help keep everything in its place during construction. Silk might be a good material to give growing cells something to hang on to.

Scientists think silk would be useful for so many things because it is both extremely strong and very elastic "it can be stretched a long way without breaking. Most of today's strong, elastic fibers are made from petroleum products and there are harsh chemicals in the recipes for these fibers.

If scientists can figure out how natural silk-makers make their threads, the harsh chemicals might not be needed. Spider silk is an ideal material," says Randy Lewis of the University of Wyoming in Laramie. "If you can mimic (imitate) it, you can eliminate an awful lot of the problems you have with all the man-made fibers that are currently available." Humans have been gathering silk not from spiders, but from silkworms for hundreds of years. Silkworms aren't worms at all, they are actually caterpillars, or the young, of the silk moth. When it's time for a silkworm to turn into a moth, the caterpillar spins itself a cocoon out of one very, very long silk fibre.

The thread from unravelling a single silkworm cocoon can be 600 to 900 meters long! That's more than two times the height of the Empire State building! Long ago, people learned how to raise silkworms together in farms. Silkworms don't mind being crowded together, as long as they have food, like mulberry leaves. In addition to making a nice fabric for scarves and sheets, silkworm silk is also used by doctors for stitching up cuts. But silkworm silk has its problems. A silkworm covers its silk in sticky glue that holds the cocoon together.

Sometimes humans have a bad allergic reaction to this glue. And silkworms spin only one kind of silk. Spiders, on the other hand, don't use a sticky glue. And spiders make many different kinds of silk. "We love the silkworm," says David Kaplan of Tufts University in Medford, Mass., who has been studying silk for many years.

"But spider silk is so diverse , we want to exploit that." Most spiders like to be alone. When they are crowded in one place they sometimes eat each other. This makes it hard to have a 'spider farm' for collecting silk. So, scientists are studying how spiders make silk, with the hope that the technique can be copied, perhaps even in other animals.


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