Metal Injections Make A Spider Silk that Spiderman Would Envy

By Rachel Cernansky | April 24, 2009 4:48 pm

800px-leucauge_venusta.jpgScientists have managed to make extra-strength spider silk—already notable for having a tensile strength higher than many alloys of steel, even though its comprised entirely of proteins [Ars Technica]—by incorporating small amounts of metal into it. A research team at the Max Planck Institute was inspired by studies showing traces of metals in the toughest parts of some insect body parts. The jaws of leaf-cutter ants and locusts, for example, both contain high levels of zinc, making them particularly stiff and hard [Reuters]. The researchers wanted to try adding metals into existing biological materials, and decided to start with the Araneus spider.

The researchers, whose work is published in Science, used atomic-layer deposition to pulse zinc, titanium, and aluminum ions into spider silk [Technology Review]. The process is used normally to apply a thin film layer of one material onto another, but the researchers found that the metal ions had actually penetrated and reacted with the protein structure of the silk, yielding a material significantly stronger than natural spider silk, though they don’t quite understand how the integration occurred. One of the researchers, Mato Knez, attributes the strengthening effect to the metal’s displacement of hydrogen bonds within the silk’s protein structure…. The team were also able to show that the outer metal coating of the silk was of minor importance in the improvement of strength, and therefore that the phenomena was caused by the metals imbedded in the protein fibres [Chemistry World].

The technique may be useful for manufacturing super-tough textiles and high-tech medical materials, including artificial bones and tendons. “It could make very strong thread for surgical operations” [Reuters], said another of the researchers, Seung-Mo Lee.

Related Content:
80beats: Spider Ancestor Made Silk—Possibly Using it for Sex—But Couldn’t Spin a Web
DISCOVER: Unraveling Spider Silk

Image: Wikimedia

MORE ABOUT: insects, spiders
  • Christina Viering

    How cool is that!

  • Aquatic

    i am looking forward to the introduction of insects able to chew through steel!
    regards aquatic thinking

  • Stephen Squires

    THIS article is one more “convergent moment” I occasionally can experience (so, also see your other article on “breakthroughs” in higher consciousness, …current issue)!

    Not long ago, I was telling a friend how Native Americans, when first encountering Europeans, occasionally marveled over their attire, some believing European clothing (which was also very smelly from long sea voyages & poor bathing habits!) had been spun from spider’s silk!

    THAT is a point I often have made over the years to demonstrate the issue of European demographics with Native Americans, together with greater European social & technical “complexity” during the early encountering era.

    It is, of course, no longer politically correct to now acknowledge the sudden cultural-encountering problem was ever about “primitive” tribal versus “advanced” technical cultures (and since ALL peoples have generally equivalent brain capacity, of course, …without regard to perhaps some otherwise “stunted” spiritual capacities for those very complex societies–my here giving Native Americans their very necessary due, and despite their own “first encounter” issues for Europeans concerning more than occasional Native ritual cannibalism and head-hunting).

    THIS disparity of “complexification,” just as the early 20th c. Catholic theologian and evolutionary scientist (perhaps a contradiction in terms to some–i am not CAtholic) Teilhard de Chardin has otherwise called this process within his book “THE PHENOMENON OF MAN,” …did, beyond anything else I believe, always spell the certain “doom” of all native cultures in North America (it is time to acknowledge this aspect once again,…while nevertheless also very necessarily acknowledging that it was all too often aided and abetted by Euro-trickery and violence, also very inevitably—a painful, very TRAGIC, but very inevitable demographic confrontation during the first encountering era).

    I recall reading, years ago, how this now “newly” reported scientific breakthrough with spider’s silk was first being attempted. I have since then idly wondered just what sort of progress may have been made by efforts of “complex” science to improve on nature, to the once mistaken wonderment of early Native Americans, and now in truly creating a better spider’s thread (for fabric and other uses!).

    I very oddly just wondered about it again this week, idly remarking about it to a friend, when I have not thought of this matter for quite some very long time before now. Then, oddly enough, I subsequently read of this very new breakthrough research in my local newspaper, only today…

    So, ENJOY!…& follow the convergences you too always experience as well!
    Stephen Squires

  • rUSTY

    make nanotubes out of it

  • Reina

    Just use hemp.

  • Dudezilla

    @ Stephen Squires

    WTF Dude?

  • Luis

    @ Dudezilla

  • Probably Sucks

    I don’t want no surgon putting any genetically modified spider silk inside me, thank you very much. Instead of making silk with metal fused into it, why not just invest more money into Carbon Nanofiber research instead?

    Carbon Nanofiber technology is already there and is cable of making extremely bulletproof vests, surgery applications, etc.

  • Bob

    @ Stephen Squires

    Tell me, when the knife had a CONVERGENCE with the frontal lobe of your brain, did it hurt?

  • sci-fi fan

    one step closer to the Weapon X program.. am i right ? SNIKT!

  • Jumblepudding

    I often wonder why these strange innovations aren’t combined. We now have frankengoats that, through splicing, have spider silk in their milk that can be used to create protective clothing, and we have silk with metal in it. The next step is of course to create goats whose bodies generate metallic silk.

  • Jo

    @Jumblepudding: I don’t think we need to be giving the goats more superpowers.

  • Skeptikor

    @Jo Says: Oh come on, it would be cool…like Wonder Warthog, ‘cept with horns.

  • bigandy

    I wish these paranoid greenies would back off technology. if they had thier way we would still be knapping flint tools and living in stick huts with a 75% infant mortality rate. Everything they see is like “oooh it bad, genetic mod baaaad for krug”. Get a clue, get educated, and quit using your brainwashed ideology to bash tech you cant get your puny brains around.

  • Simplysimple83

    why don’t you guys get over spider silk and worry about stuff that matters? worry about new world order, globalization of currency, the loss of control over government. the health care crisis, the dependency on fossil fuels, our lack of engineering leadership as a nation, our inferior school systems that “dumb down” to accommodate for pupils that don’t meet the standard to get government grants and funding. worry about how your 401k will be worth only a 1/16 of what it was 4 years ago. worry about solving our financial system and stock market. NAFTA is suffocating our economy by shipping jobs over sea’s, let alone lifting all the tariff on all imports and robbing the united states of literally billions and billions of dollars a year. who is to blame for this? US. Stop pissing over spilled milk and lets do something that’s going to make a difference?

  • Reynard

    @Simpylsimple83: You seem to be wasting your time on this site yourself. Shouldn’t you be out trying to stop all the great evils you see? Besides, how do you know that they aren’t all fighting for causes that you mentioned and spend there down time here. What makes you even think they care about those things. They may matter to you, but they may not matter to anyone else here. There is plenty more to worry about than what you mentioned.

  • samplesize

    Stumbled this. How amazing. There would be so many applications for a fine thread with high strength. I’m not sure where the greens are going with this. Things like this often reduce stress on the environment instead of adding to it. By the way, injecting spider silk with metals is not genetic modification.

  • microwaveb

    “The next step is of course to create goats whose bodies generate metallic silk”

    -of course

  • Kilgore Trout

    Gonna open up a bootique soon.

  • Forbes Holden

    I played a game about 10 years ago, called Alpha Centuri. In that game one of the futuristic technical advances was ‘silk steel’ made with man made spider silk infused with metal. Funny how itys finally a reality, 10 years on.

  • Brandon M Sergent


    Damn right. These Luddites need to be shipped to Africa for a few years to eek out a natural living. I guarantee the first tooth ache will do wonder for their attitude.

    Fortunately it doesn’t matter, the brave have never been foiled by the weak in the long term.

  • Gary Scoville

    Well, here we go again. Another case of man messing with things he should not be messing with. Haven’t we done enough damage to our eco system to date? Change this, change that. Leave it alone already!

  • Jockaira Cabo San Lucas

    The use of “silksteel” in automobile tires has the possibility of reducing tire weight by as much as 50% which translates to real savings in vehicle weight and fuel efficiency. Silksteel tires, by reducing unspring vehicle weight, would also allow the use of lighter suspension systems, also reducing vehicle weight and fuel efficiency.

    The application of silksteel to aerospace and other transport body structures is obvious and should be investigated ASAP.

    There are many other applications for light-weight strong textiles that would be beneficial to all people because of basic efficiency, and not just the users.

  • ProScience

    @ Gary Scoville
    If we ‘left things as they were’ we’d still be living in caves. It is human nature to explore, experiment and discover.

    An exciting new science is “green science”, using our ingenuity to make the world a better place and reduce our carbon footprint.

  • v

    its photoshopped.

  • theterp

    My knowledge of protein structures is a little fuzzy. Are there any chemists out there who could tell me if the hydrogen bonds being displaced, assuming that the most logical explanation of the splice is true, cause an increased deterioration/decomposition rate? At the very least the combination would have to undergo extensive testing to determine it’s long term usage.

    Actually a lot of interesting posts are on here. I could probably have a good conversation, but unfortunately I don’t have the time. If anyone could let me know about that, it would be appreciated.

  • x

    damn right it’s shopped! i haven’t notice until you mentioned it!

  • z

    yeah yeah it really was shopped, damn i didn’t notice. i’m almost got fooled.

  • z

    f*ck i said @z @myself, it should be @x

  • MWB

    @v, x and z, since you are obviously the same person: I think people like you should be taken out back and shot. Now, that having been said….

    I think it’s brilliant. Although I wonder how cost efficient it is going to be if all the silk first has to be gathered (which is quite expensive) and then all of it has to be coated in metal and then wait for the reaction to take place. It’s going to be a long and tedious process, and I think that it is going to be massively expensive.

  • Porcubot

    Well, shit.

    Just what we need. Webs that are even HARDER to get rid of.

    In all seriousness, this is pretty cool. I don’t quite understand spider silk’s strength (I’m told it’s strong but the stick I use to destroy webs says otherwise) but it’s pretty cool that man can take something in nature and make it better. These are the discoveries that aid society… though I wonder how long it will be before we see this discover put to any practical use.

  • Kyle

    Wait. Think about this. Metal eating termites.

    One step closer to the nanobots that will bring about the apocalypse.

  • Joe

    No! Those metal-eating termites will be our only defence against the steel-silk spiders and the nanobots!

    Wait, what the hell am i talking about? BRING ON THE NANOBOTS! 😀
    Also, bring on the steel-silk spiders. I <3 science that is done for the sake of seeing if it's possible 😛

  • servumtuum

    What fascinates me when stories like this arise is the tendency people seem to have to leap to melodramatic, “OMG” conclusions both in terms of future promise and future danger. This type of thing is laboratory research with only a conceptualized capability of application and further research needs to be-and will be-done before any realistic assessment of what could be developed using this technology and what risks might be involved. There seems to be something about us as humans that either makes us become wildly optimistic about a “sci-fi becoming reality now” scenario or causes a knee-jerk superstitious fear reminiscent of medieval villagers with torches chasing fantasized witches from the village.

  • Woofer58

    Flash !
    Get science onto working on getting spiders to create a carbon fiber silk. Perhaps obtain the carbon from CO2 in the air.

    Then, someday:

    {cue music}
    Our scene opens with 30-odd fuzzy spiders sitting on a bus-stop bench. They have on their little hardhats and have their little lunchboxes. [Joey’s missus tossed in a surprise honey bee for dessert]. They are poking and making jokes, just like any other commuters on a Monday morning. “hey, who wazz dat widow I seen youz wid last night ?”- and other jovial riffs.
    Yes, boys and girls, it’s another beginning of a work week for our fine high-wire workers {AFL-CIO #3343} on the new suspension bridge over the river.

    Fantasy ? Perhaps… the unions are a long way from allowing spiders….

  • Spiderman Coloring Pages

    Bring on the real life superheroes i say !


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