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Model Silk

Part of the reason it's so difficult to create synthetic spider silk is that we still don't know exactly why natural spider silk is so strong, stretchy, or tough. We have a general understanding: certain arrangements of silk protein molecules give rise to these various properties. But we're still trying to figure out exactly what's going on at the scale of the atoms making up these molecules. We know that silk fibers are made up of both crystalline subunits, in which the molecules interlock in very organized and repetitive patterns that give rise to strength, and "amorphous" subunits, in which the molecules are relatively disordered. The amorphous subunits lend the fiber the ability to deform, which allows it to stretch or absorb impact. Still mysterious is exactly how these subunits arrange themselves and connect within the total unit of a silk fiber. After all, to know this we would have to be able to view the atoms within the fiber molecules directly. We can currently view them only indirectly, using technologies such as x-ray crystallography.

But researchers can use existing knowledge of silk protein structure to build and test models of how these atoms might link together. After playing with different proportions and arrangements of the two types of subunit, a team of researchers from Germany and China have proposed a new model that they believe could help in the design of synthetic spider silk. Even if you're an English major (like me), if you've read Spider Silk, you can skim this paper and get the gist of it. If you want a precis, you can read this article from Deutsche Welle, which ends with a much-appreciated plug for arachnology. But like so many articles on spider silk research, this one, too, is mistitled: although this research offers a promising approach to synthesizing a fiber like spider silk, we still haven't untangled all the secrets of real spider silk.
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