Carbon Augmented Spider Silk

Some of the creepy-crawlers under our feet, flitting through the air, and waiting on silk webs, incorporate metals into their rigid body parts and make themselves harder. Like Mega Man, they absorb the metals to improve themselves. In addition to making their bodies harder, silk-producing creatures like worms and spiders can spin webs with augmented properties. These silks can be conductive, insulating, or stronger depending on the doping elements.

At Italy’s University of Trento, they are pushing the limits and dosing spiders with single-wall carbon nanotubes and graphene. The carbon is suspended in water and sprayed into the spider’s habitat. After the treatment, the silk is measured, and in some cases, the silk is significantly tougher and surpasses all the naturally occurring fibers.

Commercial spider silk harvesting hasn’t been successful, so maybe the next billionaire is reading this right now. Let’s not make aircraft-grade aluminum mosquitoes though. In fact, here’s a simple hack to ground mosquitoes permanently. If you prefer your insects alive, maybe you also like their sound.

Thank you for the tip, [gippgig].

22 thoughts on “Carbon Augmented Spider Silk

  1. The obvious question seems to be what impact does that environment have on the spiders? Are they bathing in the equivalent of radioactive waste here or is there no impact at all? How “bad” are CNTs to humans if you were to repeat those tests in people? Short and long term?

    Can you elaborate on “incorporate metals into their rigid body parts and make themselves harder”? Are you suggesting this happens as a separate process in nature to spiders somehow? I admit I am not an arachnologist by trade nor do I delve deeply into CNT work either.

    https://www.technologyreview.com/s/413230/silk-thats-tougher-than-spideys/ speaks to treating the silk back in 2009. This looks like more of an attempt to cause the spiders to generate silk with these properties sort of from the beginning? Curious how well that works.

    1. It isn’t a chemistry problem. It is a cost problem. Spiders tend to kill each other, unlike silkworms. Also, they do not spin nice easy to harvest cocoons. It is more of a biology problem than chemistry. Maybe GMO silkworms that make spider silk?

  2. Engineering stress is based on a cross sectional area measurement, not easy on a silk 10x thinner than a human hair and small errors amplify. Plus they say these are bundles of tiny fibres and so looks like they make lots of approximations in these calculations.

    Was this peer reviewed?

  3. this smells like a right load of old codswallop to me. Its not been published yet in a proper peer reviewed journal (not that that would give it much of a seal of approval).

  4. This paper is biologically poor. The authors have proposed no method by which these spiders can “eat” carbon nanostructures and selectively incorporate them into their silk. Even if this did happen, there’s no postulation on how the addition of this ingredient (which no spider has ever come across in the wild long enough to adapt to) will affect how silk proteins are converted to fibres during extrusion (tl;dw it’s a very sensitive process – Johansson and Rising have a lovely paper reviewing this in the context of synthetic silk).

    The authors made no effort to care for their spiders. A significant number of them died and there is no discussion of dehydration, starvation or death-by-experimentation.

    In neither the unpublished manuscript linked in the article, nor in the “peer-reviewed” paper published in 2dMaterials did the authors *clearly* describe how they collected the silk. You can actively collect silk by chasing a spider across a (clean) surface and picking the silk up, or by forcibly silking the spider. Waiting for the spider to spin silk IN THE SAME BOX YOU SPRAYED IT IN smacks of contamination.

    In the published version they conveniently changed the amino acid composition of the silk to make their protein models work.

    Also, in the (published, peer-reviewed) discussion the authors conveniently ignore the fibres that performed *worse* than native silk and focus on the one that was *amazing*. Not very scientific…

    1. Yes, not a lot of explanation or investigation of whether the graphene actually gets taken up by the spiders and then ends up in the silk. If I eat graphene, will significant amounts end up in my hair, skin, nails etc.? or will most of it just leave by the usual exits? Do spiders incorporate anything they eat into their silk?

      In the original arxiv.org prepublication they say:

      “…..However, we cannot exclude the presence of SWNTs and graphene on the fibre silk surface as a result of spinning in an environment containing SWNT and graphene. However, such external coating on the fibre surface is not expected to significantly contribute to the observed mechanical strengthening, which we attribute to the inclusion of SWNTs and graphene within the fibre matrix…..”

      So, they basically don’t seem to know if the graphene actually gets incorporated properly inside the spider, or it just adds to the surface of the silk once it has been spun. This doesn’t seem to be in the journal version of the paper.

      In any case, none of these things matter one bit as it has the word ‘graphene’ in it, so all 8 institutions involved are sure to get more funding.

  5. I think the spiders do incorporate the graphene and nanotubes into the silk but I doubt whether that has any effect. I think all they’re measuring are natural fluctuations in tensile strength.

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