The mysterious powers of spider silks

Spider silks, the stuff of spider webs, are a materials engineer's dream: they can be stronger than steel at a mere fraction of weight, and also can be tougher and more flexible. Spider silks also tend not to provoke the human immune system. Some even inhibit bacteria and fungi, making them potentially ideal for surgery and medical device applications. Exploitation of these natural marvels has been slow, due in part to the challenges involved in identifying and characterizing spider silk genes, but researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania have now made a major advance with the largest-ever study of spider silk genes.

As they report today in an advance online paper in Nature Genetics, Penn scientists and their collaborators sequenced the full genome of the golden orb-weaver spider (Nephila clavipes), a prolific silk-spinner that turns out to produce 28 varieties of silk proteins. In addition to cataloguing new spider silk genes, the researchers discovered novel patterns within the genes that may help to explain the unique properties of different types of silk.

"There were so many surprises that emerged from our study: new silk genes, new DNA sequences that presumably confer strength, toughness, stretchiness and other properties to silk proteins; and even a silk protein made in venom glands rather than silk glands," said senior author Benjamin F. Voight, PhD, an associate professor in the departments of Genetics and Systems Pharmacology and Translational Therapeutics. "All this new information should greatly advance our efforts to capture the extraordinary properties of these silks in human-made materials."

Even though spider silks have been studied for more than 50 years, earlier foundational work had identified only a comparative handful of spider silk genes. Even recent work from species with smaller silk repertoires than the golden orb-weaver's were incomplete. To find all of the silk genes hidden across the golden orb-weaver's genome -- the veritable "lab rat" of spider silk science -- required the construction of the entire genome, a daunting task in itself.

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