MIT team plumbs mystery of spider webs

Spider webs, it turns out, are hardened goo.

A team of researchers studying the golden silk spider have found that spider webs start out as a thick gel of silk solution (a teaspoonful can make 10,000 webs) that the spiders then manipulate with their hind legs and body weight and to turn it into a long fibers.

In some ways, the process is similar to what happens to egg whites when fried. The protein white starts out liquid, but after heat is applied, it hardens irreversibly into a mass. With spiders, the protein molecules in the silk solution slip past each other easily when coming out of the spider, but once outside the spider's body, they harden into crystalline strands. Both egg whites and spider webs are classified as Non-Newtonian fluids because their viscosity, or consistency, can change in this manner.

Ideally, spider web research will pave the way for developing better materials for making bulletproof vests or medical devices. In the past several years, several researchers have turned to nature for ideas. Some imitate natural forms or structures in their products in a field called bio-mimicry while others in synthetic biology are trying to reproduce natural molecules in labs.

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