Scientists use microscopy to investigate the toughness of spider silk

They hope in time to replicate the material.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Spider silk.jpg
Spider silk.


Spider silk has long baffled scientists with its amazing properties but studying it without damaging it has been a challenge. Now scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have managed to peer into the material’s true fabric using microscopy.

The work has been reported on by on Saturday.

It has been led by biophysicists Irina Iachina and Jonathan Brewer.

“We have utilized multiple advanced microscopy techniques, and we have also created a novel type of optical microscope that allows us to peer deep within a fiber and visualize its internal structure,” explained to Brewer.

Earlier studies employed methods that required slicing open the fiber invariably altering the natural structure of the silk and potentially skewing the results. 

“We aspired to examine pure, unadulterated fibers that haven’t been cut, frozen, or manipulated in any manner,” said Iachina.

To achieve this, the two researchers used Coherent Anti-Stokes Raman Scattering, Confocal Microscopy, Ultra-resolution Confocal Reflection Fluorescence Depletion Microscopy, Scanning Helium Ion Microscopy, and Helium Ion Sputtering.

The results of this work showed that spider silk fibers consist of at least two outer lipid  layers and several multitudinous tightly packed fibrils placed in a linear arrangement.

The fibrils in particular were found to be in a specific configuration. “They aren’t twisted as we might have imagined, which informs us that there’s no necessity to twist them while creating synthetic spider silk,” said Iachina.

But their work did not stop there. The team is also conducting computer simulations to understand the transformation of proteins into silk in order to recreate this process.

“Currently, I’m engrossed in computer simulations of protein-to-silk transformation. The overarching objective, naturally, is to ascertain how to synthesize artificial spider silk. But beyond this, I’m profoundly committed to fostering a broader understanding of the world we inhabit,” told Iachina.

This may lead to the introduction of new materials similar and perhaps even better than spider silk.

In July of 2021, Washington University scientists developed an artificial type of silk that was stronger than the real thing.

In order to achieve this breakthrough, the researchers genetically engineered bacteria in a lab so that they would produce amyloid silk hybrid proteins. One of the keys to this version of the researchers' silk material was finding how to add the required amount of nanocrystals to the synthetic fiber.

"Spiders have figured out how to spin fibers with a desirable amount of nanocrystals," said at the time Fuzhong Zhang, lead researcher on the study, explaining how he and his team successfully replicated this process.