60-Second Science

Unraveling Black Widow Spider Silk

Researchers have identified and sequenced the genes for key proteins in black widow spiders' super-strong dragline silk, bringing us a step closer to being able to make it ourselves for use in various materials. Steve Mirsky reports.

The black widow spider is famous for its interesting mating habits.  But it’s silk, especially what’s called dragline silk, is pretty special too.  Dragline silk is one of seven kinds of silk that an individual spider produces.  It’s the silk that provides the structural foundation of the spider’s web and supports the spider’s body as it moves around.  It turns out that black widow dragline spider silk is super strong and stretchy compared to most other silks.  Which makes it an attractive item for humans to try to copy or modify for use in lightweight but strong clothing or even body armor.

Well, the effort to manufacture spider silk got a boost this week with the publication of DNA sequences of the genes that code for two of the key proteins that make up the black widow’s dragline silk.  The research appears in the June 13 online edition of the journal Public Library of Science ONE.  As one of the researchers said, “There’s nothing quite as good yet as natural dragline silk, but we should get a lot closer now that we have the full genetic recipe.”

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