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Step aside, spiders — there’s a new way to spin artificial spider silk

Spider silk is basically a miracle material

Amazing View Of Herefordshire During The Winter Photo credit should read Billie Charity / Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Spider silk is a miracle material that could create super-strong fabrics — but it’s also extremely hard to make. Scientists have created a machine that can spin something almost as good, which means we might be one step closer to the crazy durable textiles in the future.

Spiders make silk by secreting a protein solution through a narrow duct. As the solution goes through the duct, the pressure makes the proteins link together to make the silk fiber. For the study published today in the journal Nature Chemical Biology, researchers designed a machine that does the same thing using a combination of two natural spider proteins. The resulting material is the strongest artificial spider silk yet. It’s almost as good as the real thing, it’s biodegradable, and it’s pretty cheap to make.

This is another step in solving the tricky problem of making spider silk. Regular silk comes from silkworms, which we’ve been raising on farms for thousands of years. But not only does nobody really want to have a spider farm, the animals are a lot harder to work with. To figure out a solution, other labs have tried spinning artificial silk, and some have inserted spider DNA into silkworms. Today’s advance is exciting, but that doesn’t mean the material is ready for mass production. There’s still only one machine and the scientists only spun about a kilometer of the material.

There have been a lot of attempts, but it seems like spider silk really might be worth the hype. It’s five times stronger than steel of the same diameter. It’s stretchy, durable, waterproof, and could possibly even be used in replacement hearts. The most common use, though, is still for ultra-strong fabrics: last year, the US Army awarded Kraig Biocraft a $100,000 contract to a company to see if its version of spider silk can create better body armor. Maybe it won’t be too long until we all have sleek spider silk suits.

A nest of artificial spider silk fibers.
Lena Holm