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Italian researchers have discovered that common backyard spiders, when sprayed by carbon nanomaterials, can produce silk several times stronger than the most resilient spider thread known. Their work is very preliminary, but hints at the possibility of super-silks that exceed the already remarkable properties of web-spinning thread.
Nicola Pugno and his team at the University of Trento collected 10 spiders from the vicinity. They sprayed half with a solution of graphene (an atom-thick carbon sheet) and water, the other half with carbon nanotubes and water. If you're worried that being coated with nanomaterials might be deletrious to one's health, you're quite right — some of the spiders died right away. Others, however, released thread shortly thereafter that incorporated whichever material were sprayed with — resulting in carbon-infused silk several times stronger than even that from the current record holder, the giant riverine orb spider. Such super-strong thread would have innumerable applications could it be made in bulk — which is quite a different challenge.
The theory is that when spinning thread, spiders incorporate materials from their environment, whether eaten or simply absorbed, and by controlling that environment, one likewise controls the makeup of the silk. However, the limited nature of the experiment means follow-ups and replications will have to be performed before any mechanisms can be identified or conclusions drawn.
Pugno's paper can be found on the open-access science publishing service Arxiv.
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