Spider Silk Could Save the World

Scientists are attempting to engineer a synthetic version of spider silk that could be woven into biodegradable clothing.

Spiders are the master silk makers of the animal kingdom. Sure, silkworms get the credit for high-end luxury silk garments, but silks made by arachnids are far tougher and more versatile than those spun by worms.

That’s why researchers, like Darshil Shah at the University of Cambridge, have been attempting to hack the secrets of how spiders make silk, and how humans could engineer a synthetic version. 

By combining cellulose with silicon nanoparticles, Shah and his colleagues created a “hydrogel” made mostly from water. Fibers made from the gel are strong, stretchy, and mimic some of the most valuable properties of spider silk. If he can figure out a way to weave these fibers into clothing, the fashion industry would have a new biodegradable textile that can be made with a fraction of the energy used to produce most of today’s synthetics. 

One property of spider silk Shah is most interested in is called “supercontraction.” When exposed to moisture, spider silks can contract by up to 50 percent. A material that imitated this ability could one day be used in “smart clothing,” such as a raincoat that gets tighter and more water resistant during storms, and looser and more breathable on sunny days.

This series is supported by Levi’s. VICE News retains complete editorial autonomy.