Biology Faculty Research

Title

Spider Silk Aging: Initial Improvement in a High Performance Material Followed by Slow Degradation

Document Type

Article

Publication Date

Fall 2008

Abstract

Spider silk possesses a unique combination of high tensile strength and elasticity resulting in extraordinarily tough fibers, compared with the best synthetic materials. However, the potential application of spider silk and biomimetic fibers depends upon retention of their high performance under a variety of conditions. Here, we report on changes in the mechanical properties of dragline and capture silk fibers from several spider species over periods up to 4 years of benign aging. We find an improvement in mechanical performance of silk fibers during the first year of aging. Fibers rapidly decrease in diameter, suggesting an increase in structural alignment and organization of molecules. One-year old silk also is stiffer and has higher stress at yield than fresh silk, whereas breaking force, elasticity, and toughness either improve or are unaffected by early aging. However, 4-year old silk shows signs of degradation as the breaking load, elasticity, and toughness are all lower than in fresh silk. Aging, however, does not reduce the tensile strength of silk. These data suggest initially rapid reorganization and tighter packaging of molecules within the fiber, followed by longer-term decomposition. We hypothesize that possibly the breakdown of amino acids via emission of ammonia gas, as is seen in long-term aging of museum silkworm fabrics, may contribute. Degradation of spider silk under benign conditions may be a concern for efforts to construct and utilize biomimetic silk analogs. However, our findings suggest an initial improvement in mechanical performance and that even old spider silk still retains impressive mechanical performance.

Publication Title

Journal of Experimental Zoology: Part A, Ecological Genetics and Physiology

Volume

309

Issue

8

First Page

494

Last Page

504