Nanotube-soaked spiders spin super-strong silk

Orb spider silk, already among the toughest and strongest materials found in nature, could soon get a super-strong nanoscale upgrade. A research team from the University of Trento, Italy recently sprayed 15 Orb-weaving spiders, members of the Pholcidae family, with carbon nanotube or graphene particle solutions. They found that doing so caused some of the spiders to spin even stronger silk than what they normally do. The team administered five spiders with a graphene-water solution and another 10 with a carbon-water mix. While some spiders subsequently spun sub-par silk (and four of them died outright), a few of the carbon-dosed arachnids actually produced strands 3.5 times stronger than the most resilient natural silk we know about.

The team initially suspected that the nanomaterials simply coated the outside of the strand, however that theory could not sufficiently explain the degree of performance increase seen in the resulting silk. Team leader Nicola Pugno instead believes that the spiders may be "harvesting" materials in their immediate area, then incorporating them into the spinning process. In this case, since the spider was covered in nanoparticles, that's what made it into its silk. The team plans to continue researching this technique in hopes of creating a large-scale hybrid silk production process. Up next, however, they want to recreate their success with silkworms using similar nano-solutions.

[Image Credit: The Associated Press]