Evolution of Supercontraction in Spider Silk: Structure-Function Relationship from Tarantulas to Orb-Weavers

Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 2010


Spider silk is a promising biomaterial with impressive performance. However, some spider silks also 'supercontract' when exposed to water, shrinking by up to ∼50% in length. Supercontraction may provide a critical mechanism to tailor silk properties, both for future synthetic silk production and by the spiders themselves. Several hypotheses are proposed for the mechanism and function of supercontraction, but they remain largely untested. In particular, supercontraction may result from a rearrangement of the GPGXX motif within the silk proteins, where G represents glycine, P proline and X is one of a small subset of amino acids. Supercontraction may prevent sagging in wet orb-webs or allow spiders to tailor silk properties for different ecological functions. Because both the molecular structures of silk proteins and how dragline is used in webs differ among species, we can test these hypotheses by comparing supercontraction of silk across diverse spider taxa. In this study we measured supercontraction in 28 spider taxa, ranging from tarantulas to orb-weaving spiders. We found that silk from all species supercontracted, except that of most tarantulas. This suggests that supercontraction evolved at least with the origin of the Araneomorphae, over 200 million years ago. We found differences in the pattern of evolution for two components of supercontraction. Stress generated during supercontraction of a restrained fiber is not associated with changes in silk structure and web architecture. By contrast, the shrink of unrestrained supercontracting fibers is higher for Orbiculariae spiders, whose silk contains high ratios of GPGXX motifs. These results support the hypothesis that supercontraction is caused by a rearrangement of GPGXX motifs in silk, and that it functions to tailor silk material properties.

Publication Title

Journal of Experimental Biology





First Page


Last Page