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Possible breakthrough in the production of artificial spider’s web

A team of researchers from SDU NanoSYD has developed a method that seems promising in relation to the production of artificial spider’s web.. Behind the breakthrough is a multi-year collaboration between the Faculty of Engineering and the Faculty of Science at SDU.

By Sune Holst, , 10/6/2023

The impressive properties of spider’s web have fascinated researchers since time immemorial. It is strong as steel but light as a feather. And then it is even flexible and can stretch to double its length without losing its strength.

"Artificially produced spider’s web has the potential to revolutionise everything from clothing production, space travel, airplanes to medical interventions, so it is an extremely interesting material. It is impossible to produce natural spider silk in industrial quantities, so an artificial solution is necessary. Therefore, it is interesting that we have developed a manufacturing method that shows extremely promising rates," says Associate Professor Jacek Fiutowski, Head of Nanophotonics group at SDU NanoSYD.

Before we take a closer look at the promising new method, let's turn back the clock.

Close cross-faculty collaboration has led to the possible breakthrough
The basis for the possible breakthrough lies in a collaboration between the Faculty of Engineering (TEK) and the Faculty of Science (NAT) at SDU, which goes back a long way.

For years, researcher Irina Iachina has worked to understand where spider silk gets its properties and how it is constructed - first as a PhD student with supervisors at both NAT and TEK, now as a postdoc at the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. At NAT, in connection with her research, Irina Iachina has used state-of-the-art imaging, such as optical microscopy with the highest resolution, and at TEK she has benefited from a unique super-resolution ion microscope. 

“Irina Iachina and her supervisor, Professor Jonathan Brewer, have done an excellent job at NAT. It is research of the highest quality which means that we can now offer our technical know-how in this field and help produce artificial spider silk. So in that way we complement each other incredibly well," says Jacek Fiutowski.

Microfluidic approach works
To produce the spider silk, engineer at the Mads Clausen Institute, Arkadiusz Goszczak together with Assistant Professor Casper Kunstmann, has produced a microfluidic device that can control the process of spinning silk proteins and forming silk fibres in a precise and tailored way.

Microfluidics is a branch of the science and technology concerned with controlling and manipulating very small amounts of fluid, usually at the micro or nano scale, using micro-scaled structures and devices. It is used in a wide range of applications, including medicine, biotechnology, chemistry and electronics.

By using microfluidic devices, one can precisely control the flow of silk proteins entering the spinning process and optimise the conditions to produce silk fibres with desired properties such as strength, elasticity and diameter.

"We have a proof of concept. We have to make adjustments, but the fibres behave as we hoped, so it is an extremely promising method that can hopefully pave the way for artificially produced spider’s web," says Arkadiusz Goszczak.

He goes on to say that he has 3D-printed the production apparatus, which opens up a number of advantages.

"3D printing - or additive manufacturing in a fancy word - has made it possible to go from design to prototype in less than three working days. And now that we are producing spider silk, we can continuously adjust the apparatus. It only takes a few hours to make a new and improved prototype," says Arkadiusz Goszczak.

An excellent example of what interdisciplinary collaboration can lead to
Head of the Mads Clausen Institute, Professor Horst-Günter Rubahn, is of course happy that his researchers are once again proving to be leaders in materials science, but above all he is proud of the close collaboration between the Faculty of Engineering and the Faculty of Science at SDU.

"Understanding the nature of spider silk required an interdisciplinary approach using advanced optical and non-optical characterisation methods and state-of-the-art characterisation instrumentation at two campus sites, SDU Odense (DAMBIC) and SDU Sønderborg (NanoSYD). Having a joint PhD student like Irina Iachina is a beautiful example of cross-faculty collaboration. It shows the strength that physics at SDU can achieve when research groups from different disciplines and faculties come together," says Horst-Günter Rubahn.

Editing was completed: 06.10.2023