By Madeleine Neisler

Every now and again we like to dip into new and exciting engineering projects. Advancements happen so rapidly, we often don’t hit them as fast or frequent as we’d like. But that doesn’t stop of us from loving this spider silk medical technology tie-in. Like most people I know, I find spiders to be very scary, although fascinating. Arachnids are amazing creatures. They produce and carry the material to build their own homes, capture their own food, and now, their silk is making advancements in biomedical research. Today we will look at some examples of how spiders are changing the way we think about medical technology, specifically their silk.

A research article published on Medical Xpress discusses how researchers are looking into the potential of spider silk protein for engineering an artificial heart. Heart disease and failure is a very real thing in this country. According to the article reduced cardiac functionality happens when there is irreversible loss of cardiac muscle cells because of disease. At Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) researchers are working with the University of Bayreuth are working to see whether an artificial silk protein, inspired by spiders, developed in a laboratory could be used to engineer cardiac tissue to make an artificial heart, specifically, the protein that gives the silk its stability and structure, called fibroin. Dr. Felix Engel of the department of Nephropathology looked at silk from the Indian silkworm and noticed its perfect use as scaffolding material for cardiac tissue. The issue until now was producing the protein in large quantities and at a steady quality. According to the article, “His (Dr. Felix Engel’s) colleague, Prof. Dr. Thomas Scheibel, holder of the Chair for Biomaterials at the University of Bayreuth, had successfully produced a recombinant silk protein from garden spiders in the required larger quantities and of a consistent quality with the help of E. coli bacteria. This led the two researchers to join forces and further investigate the silk proteins of garden spiders.” The research then focused on whether or not the protein would work as material for engineering an artificial heart. They conducted this research by applying a thin layer of the silk protein to a glass slide to see if they would adhere. They then applied other cells like blood vessel cells to the film and found it to be successful. Ultimately, they hope to be able to print these artificial silk proteins using a 3D printer in order to engineer fully functional cardiac tissue. This is truly amazing engineering!

The next example is of researchers in Italy and the UK. They have found a way to strengthen spider silk using various species of spiders and carbon nanotubes or graphene. According to an article published on Engineering Materials, Professor Nicola Pugno at the University of Trento, Italy led his research team to successfully have their spiders produce silk that is three times the strength and ten times the toughness of regular spider silk. Professor Pugno said,

“We already know that there are biominerals present in the protein matrices and hard tissues of insects, which gives them high strength and hardness in their jaws, mandibles and teeth, for example. Our study looked at whether spider silk’s properties could be ‘enhanced’ by artificially incorporating various different nanomaterials into the silk’s biological protein structures.”

Ultimately, their research could be applied to other animals and plants, thus leading to new developments in bionicomposites for groundbreaking uses.

The last example is an article published on Ars Technica. Researchers in India are using lasers to weld spider silk to Kevlar. Due to the discovery of spider silk working well with lasers researchers discovered that they could cut the silk into specific lengths, as well as melting the silk to create a welding effect. They were able to weld the spider silk to metal, glass and Kevlar, including welding a tiny mirror to a frame and then suspended it using the spider silk. It worked.

In conclusion, even though they can be creepy, spiders can be more than useful. It certainly changes the way I look at a spider web.