London, April 29 : A pair of German researchers has created a prototype micromachine that spins silk just like a spider.
Andreas Bausch of the Technical University of Munich and Thomas Scheibel of the University of Bayreuth hope that their creation may finally lead to workable strategies for producing quantities of artificial spider silk that will be super-light, super-strong, and highly elastic.
Once high-quality artificial spider silk comes into being, say the researchers, it may soon find many practical applications such as use in bulletproof vests and optic fibres.
Spiders' silk ducts contain glands that process a gel of simple proteins into long fibres of protein. Different glands alter the chemistry of the gel in different ways, producing silk with different properties.
The researchers say that the artificial duct they have created is a glass chip that mimics those processes.
"The best thing is to reproduce nature, instead of cutting open spiders," New Scientist quoted Bausch as saying.
Bausch and Scheibel claim that they are the first to invent a device that is highly efficient at recreating the chemical and physical conditions of a real silk duct.
The researcher duo also claims to be the first to make fibres containing more than one silk protein.
The glass chip invented by Bausch and Scheibel uses two proteins called ADF3 and ADF4, both of which are found in silk from the European garden spider (Araneus diadematus).
The two proteins flow along tiny tubes inside the chip, and are exposed to a phosphate salt solution that makes them aggregate into tiny spheres one to five micrometers across.
As acidity and phosphate concentration rise, they partially break open the spheres and allow the proteins to latch together into chains.
At this point, the flow speed increases and draws out the proteins into long silk fibres.
The researchers say that fibres created from the two proteins were found to make the silk more chemically stable.
Although they have yet not tested the artificial silk's mechanical properties, its grainy appearance indicates that it does not yet rival the quality of the real thing.
Bausch has revealed that the research team is trying to refine the material so that artificial silk could be generates in quantities enough to meet industrial demands.
The researcher, however, did not divulge any further details of the project because of plans to file patents on the advances.
A report describing the new process of creating artificial spider silk appears in the journal PNAS.