The golden orb-weavers web could be used to make bulletproof clothing

By Angela Heathcote March 28, 2018
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If you’ve ever walked into a golden orb-weaving spider’s web, you’ll be familiar with its strength.

THE HUMBLE GOLDEN orb-weaving spider, apparently one of tastiest spiders’, although we aren’t game enough to try, may have the potential to revolutionise the world of synthetic materials.

Researcher Genevieve Kerr from the University of the Sunshine Coast has always been curious about the world of medicine, particularly surgeries, which drove her to explore the potentials of spider silk.

“I found that the synthetic products being used such as stents, sutures and ligament and tendon replacements, had the potential to break and fail,” she tells Australian Geographic.

“I had known about the toughness of spider silk and wanted to look into its mechanical properties to see if it could have a future in the medical field to improve surgeries and lives.”

See more: The truth about white-tail spiders

To test her theory, Genevieve and a small team of researchers began collecting silk from the spiders’ webs in their natural environment.

Using a stress-testing machine to evaluate the strength of the spider silk, the researchers revealed that the golden orb-weaving spiders silk is up to a hundred times tougher than synthetic products currently being used for medical surgeries.

“It has the potential to replace a number of materials, such as sutures, stents and skin grafts in the medical field, motorcycle clothing that is tougher and lighter than Kevlar, fishing line and net. The potential is so great we could even be looking at bulletproof clothing for the military,” she said.

What makes the golden orb weaver’s silk so durable?

According to Genevieve it’s the outer frame or “dragline silk” that gives the web its durability.

“Made from major ampullate silk it has a unique combination of strength and extensibility resulting in a fibre that is tougher than any man made material.”  

See more: Spiders in the city are bigger

Further analysis of the data from the study enabled Genevieve to identify how the strength of spiders silk can vary.

“We found that golden orb spiders produce particularly tough silk and the larger spiders from the rainforest, which can grow up to 20cm in diameter, produce the strongest yet thinnest silks,” she said.

A big setback

At the moment,  there’s no way for spider silk to be farmed in the same way that silk worms are because spiders tend to eat each other, Genevieve says.

Having identified that some spiders silk is stronger than others, future research will be focused on uncovering what molecular properties contribute to this strength.

“This information may help to unlock how spiders produce such incredibly tough silk and this can open the doors for synthetic production of a new material that is tougher than any man made material.”

The research was published in the journal Biology Open today.