By Bryan Nelson
These are not your friendly neighborhood spiders: scientists have mixed a graphene solution that when fed to spiders allows them to spin super-strong webbing. How strong? Strong enough to carry the weight of a person. And these spiders might soon be enlisted to help manufacture enhanced ropes and cables, possibly even parachutes for skydivers, reports The Sydney Morning Herald.
Graphene is a wonder-material that is an atomic-scale hexagonal lattice made of carbon atoms. It’s incredibly strong, but it was definitely a shot in the dark to see what would happen if it was fed to spiders.
For the study, Nicola Pugno and team at the University of Trento in Italy added graphene and carbon nanotubes to a spider’s drinking water. The materials were naturally incorporated into the spider’s silk, producing webbing that is five times stronger than normal. That puts it on par with pure carbon fibers in strength, as well as with Kevlar, the material bulletproof vests are made from.
“We already know that there are biominerals present in the protein matrices and hard tissues of insects, which gives them high strength and hardness in their jaws, mandibles, and teeth, for example,” explained Pugno. “So our study looked at whether spider silk’s properties could be ‘enhanced’ by artificially incorporating various different nanomaterials into the silk’s biological protein structures.”
If you think that creating super-spiders might be going too far, this research is only the beginning. Pugno and her team are preparing to see what other animals and plants might be enhanced if they are fed graphene. Might it get incorporated into animals’ skin, exoskeletons, or bones?
“This process of the natural integration of reinforcements in biological structural materials could also be applied to other animals and plants, leading to a new class of ‘bionicomposites’ for innovative applications,” Pugno added.
So far, it doesn’t seem as if the spiders can continue to spin their super-silk without a steady diet of graphene or nanotubes; it isn’t a permanent enhancement. That might offer some solace to those concerned about getting ensnared in the next spider web they walk through, but the research does raise questions about what kinds of effects graphene or carbon nanotubes might have when released in abundance into natural systems.
The research was published in the journal 2D Materials.