Peering Into the True Nature of Spider Silk with Advanced Microscopy

Category Engineering

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Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed novel microscopy techniques to study spider silk without damaging its structure. The results of their work showed that the material consists of two outer layers and multiple fibrils that are placed in an organized structure. In addition, the team is conducting computer simulations to understand how to synthesize artificial silk. Washington University made a breakthrough in July of 2021 when they managed to create an artificial silk that is even stronger than the real thing.

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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 Earth .

The researchers used genetic engineering to create an artificial type of silk that is stronger than the real thing

com 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 .

Washington University scientists genetically altered bacteria in a lab to produce amyloid silk hybrid proteins

The results of this work showed that spider silk fibers consist of at least two outer lipidlayers 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 .

The researchers' artificial silk was created by adding the right amount of nanocrystals to the synthetic fiber

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 Earth .

The material is configured with two outer lipidlayers and several tightly packed fibrils in a linear arrangement

com 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 .

Twisting of the fibrils is not required to create synthetic spider silk

"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.

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