The Energy of Innovation at The University of Akron

Spiders weave webs that inspire scientific innovation

Creepy. But useful.

INSPIRED BY the extraordinary properties of silk spun by an ordinary spider to create a web, University of Akron researchers are contributing to the development of materials that are as strong as steel and yet flexible as rubber. The spider is a critical link in producing biomaterials to heal or replace injured body tissue, new kinds of adhesives, miniaturized robots, and roping strong enough to lift trucks. In fact, the Spiderman of movie fantasies really could one day swing from building to building using spun spider silk!

Thread by thread, the mysteries of spiders and their spun silk are being unraveled by UA scientists. With 40,000 species of spiders, some of which are microscopic in size, and many of which produce multiple kinds of silk, there’s plenty to study.  As behavioral scientists try to figure out how, when and why different spiders create vastly diverse webs, material scientists try to understand how to recreate the properties of spun silk.

What becomes an intricate and beautiful web starts out as a liquid inside the spider’s body, stored in a tiny gland and able to be assembled into a solid thread that “ounce for ounce” is stronger than steel. Some spider silk threads are strong and stretchy; others are sticky. Understanding the why’s and how’s will allow scientists to mimic what comes so easily to nature and animals.

“We can’t do what a spider can do, so we take a very scientific approach to understanding the principles behind our observations of nature and see how we can apply these to scientific innovation and societal needs,” says Dr. Todd Blackledge, Leuchtag Endowed Chair and associate professor of biology and integrated bioscience at UA. “Discoveries are unfolding rapidly.”

Consider a 2-centimeter-diameter silk cord capable of lifting a 2-metric-ton truck, a silk muscle powered by moisture to contract and release, an adhesive silk micro-thread to suture a damaged tendon, or silk scaffolding impregnated with chemicals to cause neurons or bones to grow exactly where they are needed.

These discoveries are opening new frontiers in medicine and industry — all with strong threads of hope.

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Interview with Dr. Todd Blackledge

Revealing the secrets of stronger-than-steel spider silk

The quest for strong and stretchy materials

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