VIDEO: As Oxford research reveals how one spider electrocharges nano-filaments to make them ultra-sticky, lead scientist Fritz Vollrath outlines the huge potential for using silk in manufacturing and medicine.

Spider web secret untangledA spider is yielding up vital insights into how to spin fibres mere nanometres thick and incredibly sticky.

Most spiders spin silk several micrometres thick but Uloborus plumipes not only spins nano-scale filaments – it then charges them electrostatically by vigorous combing.

The findings by Professor Fritz Vollrath (pictured above) and colleague Dr Katrin Kronenberger are just the latest fruit of research by the Department of Zoology’s Oxford Silk Group. In the video below, Professor Vollrath explains how his team is directly harvesting nature’s product and developing fascinating new ways to use silk in modern manufacturing and medicine.

Uloborus plumipes — so common in British garden centres that it is known as ‘the garden centre spider’ — uses the electrostatic charge instead of the sticky blobs of glue incorporated in other spiders’ webs, the scientists report in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters.

Microscopy focused on Uloborus’s rare and ancient spinning organ, equipped with the smallest silk glands of any spider. The spider uses special hairs on its hind legs to comb the gossamer material into a capture thread, also violently pulling it in the process — creating the charge.

‘Studying this spider is giving us valuable insights into how it creates nano-scale filaments,’ said Professor Vollrath. ‘If we could reproduce its neat trick of electro-spinning nano-fibres we could pave the way for a highly versatile and efficient new kind of polymer processing technology.’

All silk produced by spiders and silkworms is already wonderful — light, strong and highly elastic. Professor Vollrath’s team has discovered that silk can be cleaned, treated and remoulded to tune its material properties, so it can be made super-strong, say, or highly biodegradable.

The result is a material with many possible applications. Its low density and high elasticity means that it can be used to create a new breed of lightweight protection, such as cycling helmets or car body panels, that keep us safe without weighing us down.

And, because the material is biocompatible, it can be used to create hard-wearing replacement joints, as Professor Vollrath explains in this video, or lightweight scaffolds to promote the regrowth of nerves that are readily accepted by the body.

Silk is also highly sustainable: natural, environmentally friendly, and potentially straightforward to mass-produce. Forget your tie; the whole future could be woven with silk.


The surprising uses of silk [Annual Review 2013-2014]

The article draws from the Michaelmas 2014 issue of Oxford Today, illustrated by our ‘Big Picture’ of Fritz Vollrath and Araneus diadematus, the garden cross spider. Read the full issue online here, or download in pdf, iPhone/iPad or Android format. The video, new from the University of Oxford’s Annual Review, is reproduced here by kind permission.