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Liquid crystalline spinning of spider silk

Abstract

Spider silk has outstanding mechanical properties despite being spun at close to ambient temperatures and pressures using water as the solvent. The spider achieves this feat of benign fibre processing by judiciously controlling the folding and crystallization of the main protein constituents, and by adding auxiliary compounds, to create a composite material of defined hierarchical structure. Because the ‘spinning dope’ (the material from which silk is spun) is liquid crystalline, spiders can draw it during extrusion into a hardened fibre using minimal forces. This process involves an unusual internal drawdown within the spider's spinneret that is not seen in industrial fibre processing, followed by a conventional external drawdown after the dope has left the spinneret. Successful copying of the spider's internal processing and precise control over protein folding, combined with knowledge of the gene sequences of its spinning dopes, could permit industrial production of silk-based fibres with unique properties under benign conditions.

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Figure 1: The seven specialized glands and their different amino acid compositions of a typical Araneid orb weaver.
Figure 2: A spider's dragline spinneret.

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Acknowledgements

We thank B. Meier, R. Young, S. Case, J. Kenney, D. LaFollette, C. Craig, D. Kaplan, J. Gosline and H. Coulsey for their perceptive and helpful comments. Our research on spider silk has been funded by the Danish Science Research Council (SNF), the Science Faculty of Aarhus University, the Carlsberg Foundation, the Danish Academic Exchange Programme, the US Army (RDSG), the British Biological and Engineering Research Councils (BBSRC, EPSRC), the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) and the European Science Foundation (ESF). F.V. thanks the director and staff of Mpala Research Centre for their hospitality; D.P.K. thanks the Biological Imaging Centre at Southampton University for technical assistance and we both are grateful to our many collaborators for their help and support.

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Correspondence to Fritz Vollrath.

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Vollrath, F., Knight, D. Liquid crystalline spinning of spider silk. Nature 410, 541–548 (2001). https://doi.org/10.1038/35069000

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