Most of us try to avoid brown recluse spiders, given their potent venom, but a team of scientists recently dared to study the arachnids up close and were amazed by what they saw: spiders in deep concentration crafting an industrial strength material for their webs with a sewing-like motion.
If the spider's unique silk and technique are applied to synthetic materials, the researchers believe that the results could benefit space travel, lead to better parachutes, allow for more impressive Hollywood movie stunts and more. The findings are published in the journal Materials Horizons.
The spider uses its silk-producing organs, called spinnerets, to sew the strands. The large spinnerets form a loop of silk thread before the smaller spinnerets close the loop with a speedy clamp-and-release action.
"The motion is similar to how one might roll up an extension cord: by drawing out a length of cord, clamping it into a loop and bundling the looped portion with the prior loops," said Hannes Schniepp, an associate professor in the department of applied science at William & Mary College and the study's lead author.
The resulting material, as seen by Schniepp and his colleagues under high magnification, consists of multiple micro-loops that boost silk's strength. Sean Koebley, a graduate student who co-authored the study, said that even a single loop "significantly enhances the toughness" of the material.
The brown recluse's silk is the only known spider silk to be thin and flat instead of round. Schniepp likened the sticky silk to a piece of Scotch tape, but 2000 times thinner.