Biology Faculty Research


Supercontraction Forces in Spider Dragline Silk Depend on Hydration Rate

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Spring 2009


Spider dragline silk is a model biological polymer for biomimetic research due to its many desirable and unusual properties. 'Supercontraction' describes the dramatic shrinking of dragline silk fibers when wetted. In restrained silk fibers, supercontraction generates substantial stresses of 40-50 MPa above a critical humidity of approximately 70% relative humidity (RH). This stress may maintain tension in webs under the weight of rain or dew and could be used in industry for robotics, sensor technology, and other applications. Our own findings indicate that supercontraction can generate stress over a much broader range than previously reported, from 10 to 140 MPa. Here we show that this variation in supercontraction stress depends upon the rate at which the environment reaches the critical level of humidity causing supercontraction. Slow humidity increase, over several minutes, leads to relatively low supercontraction stress, while fast humidity increase, over a few seconds, typically results in higher supercontraction stress. Slowly supercontracted fibers take up less water and differ in thermostability from rapidly supercontracted fibers, as shown by thermogravimetric analysis. This suggests that spider silk achieves different molecular configurations depending upon the speed at which supercontraction occurs. Ultimately, rate-dependent supercontraction may provide a mechanism to tailor the properties of silk or biomimetic fibers for various applications.

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