Scientists have discovered a new type of silk that combines the legendary stickiness of barnacles with the strength of spider silk (which is strong as steel and five times less dense). But the new material doesn’t come from a lab—it’s made by the small shrimp-like animal Crassicorophium bonellii. These crafty amphipods spin the silk using their legs like spiders to fashion mud-coated tubes in which they live.
In a study published this month in the journal Naturwissenschaften, researchers from the Oxford Silk Group found that the silk is extremely sticky and can cement underwater, like the glue used by barnacles to stick to virtually anything. But it’s also strong and flexible, with a solid fiber core like that seen in spider silk. Also like many spiders, the creatures process and excrete the material from ducts in their legs, which they then use to spin it and fashion themselves a home.
The material is first made in a gland similar to that of barnacles. The researchers think the similarities to spiders, both in the strength/flexibility of the fiber and spinning process with the legs, evolved independently, since C. bonellii are more closely related to barnacles than arachnids.
Since the material can form bonds and retain its flexible strength in salty, watery conditions like those inside the human body, researchers say they think it could be used in a variety of biomedical applications. They also told the BBC insights into its structure could help design barnacle-resisant coatings for boats.
[Via The Economist]
Reference: Katrin Kronenberger, Cedric Dicko and Fritz Vollrath. A novel marine silk. Published online 5 November 2011. Naturwissenschaften. DOI: 10.1007/s00114-011-0853-5
Image credit Katrin Kronenberger.