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A garden spider spinning its web.
A female specimen of Argiope bruennichi wraps her prey in silk.

Spider silk, also known as gossamer, is a protein fiber spun by spiders. Spiders use their silk to make webs or other structures, which function as nets to catch other animals, or as nests or cocoons for protection for their offspring. They can also suspend themselves using their silk, normally for the same reasons.

Many small spiders use silk threads for ballooning, the scientific term for the dynamic kiting[1][2] spiderlings (mostly) use for dispersal. They extrude several threads into the air and let themselves become carried away with upward winds. Although most rides will end a few yards later, it seems to be a common way for spiders to invade islands. Many sailors have reported that spiders have been caught in their ship's sails, even when far from land.

In some cases, spiders may even use silk as a source of food.[3][4]

Methods have been developed to silk a spider forcibly.[5]



Spider silk is a remarkably strong material. Its tensile strength is superior to that of high-grade steel, and as strong as aramid filaments, such as Twaron or Kevlar. Most importantly, spider silk is extremely lightweight: a strand of spider silk long enough to circle the Earth would weigh less than 500 grams (1 lb.)[6]

Spider silk is also especially ductile, able to stretch up to 140% of its length without breaking. It can hold its strength below -40 degrees celsius. This gives it a very high toughness (or work to fracture), which "equals that of commercial polyaramid (aromatic nylon) filaments, which themselves are benchmarks of modern polymer fiber technology."[7] [3]


Structure of spider silk. Inside a typical fiber, one finds crystalline regions separated by amorphous linkages. The crystals are beta-sheets that have assembled together.

Spider silk is composed of complex protein molecules. This, coupled with the isolation stemming from the spider's predatory nature, has made the study and replication of the substance quite challenging. Because of the repetitive nature of the DNA encoding the silk protein, it is difficult to determine its sequence and to date, silk-producing sequences have only been decoded for fourteen species of spider. In 2005, independent researchers in the University of Wyoming (Tian and Lewis), University of the Pacific (Hu and Vierra), the University of California at Riverside (Garb and Hayashi) and Shinshu University (Zhao and Nakagaki) have uncovered the molecular structure of the gene for the protein that various female spider species use to make their silken egg cases.

Although different species of spider, and different types of silk, have different protein sequences, a general trend in spider silk structure is a sequence of amino acids (usually alternating glycine and alanine, or alanine alone) that self-assemble into a beta sheet conformation. These "Ala rich" blocks are separated by segments of amino acids with bulky side-groups. The beta sheets stack to form crystals, whereas the other segments form amorphous domains. It is the interplay between the hard crystalline segments, and the strained elastic semi amorphous regions, that gives spider silk its extraordinary properties.[8] [9] The high toughness is due to the breaking of hydrogen bonds in these regions.

Various compounds other than protein are used to enhance the fiber's properties. Pyrrolidine has hygroscopic properties and helps to keep the thread moist. It occurs in especially high concentration in glue threads. Potassium hydrogen phosphate releases protons in aqueous solution, resulting in a pH of about 4, making the silk acidic and thus protecting it from fungi and bacteria that would otherwise digest the protein. Potassium nitrate is believed to prevent the protein from denaturating in the acidic milieu.[10]

Types of silk

Many species of spider have different glands to produce silk for different jobs, such as housing and web construction, defense, capturing and detaining prey, or mobility. Thus, different specialized silks have evolved with material properties optimized for their intended use. For example, Argiope argentata has five different types of silk, each for a different purpose:[11][12]

Silk Use
dragline silk Used for the web's outer rim and spokes, as well as for the lifeline. As strong as steel, but much tougher.
capture-spiral silk Used for the capturing lines of the web. Sticky, extremely stretchy and tough.
tubiliform silk Used for protective egg sacs. Stiffest silk.
aciniform silk Used to wrap and secure freshly captured prey. Two to three times as tough as the other silks, including dragline.
minor-ampullate silk Used for temporary scaffolding during web construction


An orb weaver producing silk from its spinnerets

The unspun silk dope is pulled through silk glands, resulting in a transition from stored gel to final solid fiber.

The gland's visible, or external, part is termed the spinneret. Depending on the species, spiders will have anything from two to eight spinnerets, usually in pairs. The beginning of the gland is rich in thiol and tyrosine groups. After this beginning process, the ampulla acts as a storage sac for the newly created fibers. From there, the spinning duct effectively removes water from the fiber and through fine channels also assists in its formation. Lipid secretions take place just at the end of the distal limb of the duct, and proceeds to the valve. The valve is believed to assist in rejoining broken fibers, acting much in the way of a helical pump.

The spinneret apparatus of a Araneus diadematus consists of the following glands:

  • 500 Glandulae piriformes for attachment points
  • 4 Glandulae ampullaceae for the web frame
  • about 300 Glandulae aciniformes for the outer lining of egg sacs, and for ensnaring prey
  • 4 Glandulae tubuliformes for egg sac silk
  • 4 Glandulae aggregatae for glue
  • 2 Glandulae coronatae for the thread of glue lines[10]

Human uses

Peasants in the southern Carpathian Mountains used to cut up tubes built by Atypus and cover wounds with the inner lining. It reportedly facilitated healing, and even connected with the skin. This is believed to be due to antiseptic properties of spider silk[10]

Some fishermen in the Indo-Pacific ocean use the web of Nephila to catch small fish.[10]

The silk of Nephila clavipes has recently been used to help in mammalian neuronal regeneration. [13]

At one time, it was common to use spider silk as a thread for crosshairs in telescopes, microscopes and similar optical instruments.[14]

Due to the difficulties in extracting and processing substantial amounts of spider silk, there is currently only one known cloth made of spider silk. It is a 11-by-4-foot (3.4 by 1.2 m) textile with a golden tint that has been made in Madagascar in 2009. It required four years to extract silk from over one million golden orb spiders. [15]

Artificial spider silk

Spider silk is as strong as many industrial fibers (see tensile strength for common comparisons). There is commercial interest in duplicating spider silk artificially, since spiders use renewable materials as input and operate at room temperature, low pressures and using water as a solvent. However, it has been difficult to find a commercially viable process to mass-produce spider silk.

It is generally considered not possible to use spiders themselves to produce industrially useful quantities of spider silk, due to the difficulties of managing large quantities of small spiders (although this was tried with Nephila silk[10]). Compared with silkworms, spiders are aggressive and will eat one another, making it inadvisable to keep many spiders together in the same space. Other efforts have involved extracting the spider silk gene and using other organisms to produce the required amount of spider silk. In 2000, Nexia, a Canadian biotechnology company, was successful in producing spider silk protein in transgenic goats. These goats carried the gene for spider silk protein, and the milk produced by the goats contained significant quantities of the protein (1-2 grams of silk proteins per litre of milk). Attempts to spin the protein into a fiber similar to natural spider silk resulted in fibers with tenacities of 2-3 grams per denier (see BioSteel).[4][5]

Extrusion of protein fibers in an aqueous environment is known as 'wet-spinning'. This process has so far produced silk fibers of diameters ranging from 10-60 μm, compared to diameters of 2.5-4 μm seen in natural spider silk.

The spider's highly sophisticated spinneret is instrumental in organizing the silk proteins into strong domains. Specifically, the spinneret creates a gradient of protein concentration, pH, and pressure, which drive the protein solution through liquid crystalline phase transitions, ultimately generating the required silk structure (which is a mixture of crystalline and amorphous biopolymer regions). Replicating these complex conditions in lab environment has proved difficult. Nexia used wet spinning and squeezed the silk protein solution through small extrusion holes in order to simulate the behavior of the spinneret, but this has so far not been sufficient to replicate the exact properties of the native spider silk.[16]

See also


  1. ^ Spiders By Ann R. Heinrichs. Google Books. She observes that the so called ballooning is like a kite or balloon; she is mechanically correct about the kite part, as no true balloon is ever formed by the spider as told in the other references.
  2. ^ Flying Spiders over Texas! Coast to Coast. Chad B., Texas State University Undergrad: He correctly describes the mechanical kiting of spider "ballooning".
  3. ^ "Spider Silk". School of Chemistry - Bristol University - UK. Retrieved 2007-05-22. 
  4. ^ Miyashita, Tadashi; Yasunori Maezono, Aya Shimazaki (March 2004). "Silk feeding as an alternative foraging tactic in a kleptoparasitic spider under seasonally changing environments". Journal of Zoology 262 (03): 225–229. doi:10.1017/S0952836903004540.;jsessionid=E5F9929D3300E3C4E54DF68FB169AD62.tomcat1?fromPage=online&aid=204739. Retrieved 2007-05-22. 
  5. ^ An Apparatus and Technique for the Forcible Silking of Spiders
  6. ^ Spider dragline silk has a tensile strength of roughly 1.3 GPa. The tensile strength listed for steel might be slightly higher - e.g. 1.65 GPa. [1]Shao, Z. Vollrath, F. (August 15, 2002). "Materials: Surprising strength of silkworm silk". Nature 418: 741. doi:10.1038/418741a. , but spider silk is a much less dense material, so that a given weight of spider silk is five times as strong as the same weight of steel.
  7. ^ Vollrath, F. Knight, D.P. (2001). "Liquid crystalline spinning of spider silk". Nature 410: 541. doi:10.1038/35069000. 
  8. ^ Liu, Y., Sponner, A., Porter, D., Vollrath, F. (2008). "Proline and Processing of Spider Silks". Biomacromolecules 9: 116. doi:10.1021/bm700877g. 
  9. ^ Papadopoulos, P., Ene, R., Weidner, I., Kremer, F. (2009). "Similarities in the Structural Organization of Major and Minor Ampullate Spider Silk". Macromol. Rapid Commun. 30: 851-857. doi:10.1002/marc.200900018. 
  10. ^ a b c d e Heimer, S. (1988). Wunderbare Welt der Spinnen. Urania. p.12
  11. ^ Cunningham, A. (2007), Taken for a Spin. Science News vol. 171, pp. 231-233
  12. ^ Blackledge, T.A., and Hayashi, C.Y. (2006). Silken toolkits: Biomechanics of silk fibers spun by the orb web spider Argiope argentata. Journal of Experimental Biology 209(July 1), pp. 2452-2461 (references)
  13. ^ Allmeling, C., Jokuszies, A., Reimers, K., Kall, S., Vogt, P.M. (2006): Use of spider silk fibres as an innovative material in a biocompatible artificial nerve conduit. J. Cell. Mol. Med. 10(3):770-777 PDF - doi:10.2755/jcmm010.003.18
  14. ^ Berenbaum, May R., Field Notes - Spin Control, The Sciences, The New York Academy Of Sciences, September/October 1995
  15. ^ "1 Million Spiders Make Golden Silk for Rare Cloth". 
  16. ^ Scheibel, T. (2004): Spider silks: recombinant synthesis, assembly, spinning, and engineering of synthetic proteins. "Microb Cell Fact" 3:14 [2]
  • Forbes, Peter (4th Estate, London 2005). "The Gecko's Foot - Bio Inspiration: Engineered from Nature", ISBN 0-00-717990-1 in H/B
  • Graciela C. Candelas, José Cintron. "A spider fibroin and its synthesis", Journal of Experimental Zoology (1981), Department of Biology, University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras, Puerto Rico 00931

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