Spider silk: a rich harvest for science fiction writers

Science is going crazy over spider silk, and science fiction writers should be too. The unique properties of spider silk have enormous implications in the fields of technology, health, acoustics and wearable armour/fabric. If you’ve ever wanted to include some spider science in your stories, look no further! I’ve collected some resources to inspire your sci-fi tech, all based on actual real scientific research.

First off, some background. How is spider silk harvested?

Harvesting

As you can imagine, harvesting spider silk is not easy, and is the main reason scientists are trying to develop synthetic spider silk. Unlike silkworms, spiders bite, and golden orb weavers cannibalise each other. Unless you’ve dreamed up some placid, non-venomous species for your story (where’s the fun in that?) harvesting is going to be a concern for your characters or your world-building. So let’s get started. Warning… this video is highly creepy! (The preview is even creepy).

Ethics

If you’re like me, ethical treatment may not be the first thing that springs to mind. I have a healthy hatredfear of spiders and I haven’t lost too much sleep over this. BUT WAIT, what if your society is run by vegans? What if the spiders are sentient, or animals just have more basic rights in this society you’ve concocted? You might want to have a bit of an understanding of the ethical considerations of harvesting spider silk.

Screenshot of a description of the process used to sedate and restrain the spider humanely

Comment responding to outrage over the treatment of the spider, by the Oxford Silk Group

Of course, not everyone was satisfied by this explanation, so you need to consider the ethics of spider silk harvesting in your stories.

Properties

However terrifying spiders may be, their webs are beautiful and technical constructions. The golden orb weaver produces yellow silk, as seen below. Scientists are still discovering the unique properties of spider silk.

Golden orb weaver spider in yellow web

By Stephen Friedt. Available at Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0

Acoustics

It’s logical that spider silk has interesting acoustic properties. A spider web is multi-functional: it traps prey, alerts the spider about the imminent victim, and must be strong enough to hold struggling prey. It’s the vibrations that alert the spider.

Spiders ‘tune’ their webs like guitar strings

Exploiting this acoustic quality, an engineering student manufactured a violin made from spider silk and resin. He says the blend of materials makes the acoustic qualities flexible, and they could be applied to other sound equipment.

A visionary scientist has made a violin with spider silk – and it sounds extraordinary

                                    By Imperial College London. Available on Youtube.

As well as transmitting sound, scientists have found that spider silk can dampen sound. Certain frequencies do not pass through the microstructure of the silk, and manipulating the tension of the silk changes the frequency blocked. This also means spider silk can act as an insulating material against heat (read the article at the link for an explanation).

Spiders spin unique phononic material

Health

A team of researchers from Stockholm are working to develop a genetically-engineered spider silk “bandaid” to heal chronic unhealing wounds. The concept is fascinating and has implications for ways in which you could include spider silk augmentation.

More medical uses for spider silk include sutures, implants, artificial skin and cartilage replacement.

Infographic of different medical uses for spider silk

Source: CNN.com ‘Medical applications of spider silk’ from “Harnessing spider powers to heal human bodies” by Kieran Monk.

Technology

Spider silk allows scientists to break the laws of physics. Recently scientists in the UK used spider silk to increase the magnification possibilities of microscopes.

Spider silk: Mother Nature’s bio-superlens

Scientists are discovering that spider silk is a promising material in the area of fibre optics. Traditional materials used for fibre optics are inert, but spider silk is “made up of very long proteins rolled into a helix structure whose bonds are sensitive to a number of chemical substances“, which has sparked the imaginations of researchers in the field. Perhaps your society has a communications tech based on spider silk?

Using Spider Silk to Detect Molecules

                  By École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) Available on Youtube.

There are a number of qualities of spider silk that could be exploited in different ways, such as the discovery of the hybrid liquid/solid qualities of spider silk, causing it to behave like a liquid wire. This could have implications for structural engineering, medical technology and other fields that require unique materials.

Spider Silk Inspires Creation of Liquid Wire

By University of Oxford. Available on Youtube.

Fabric/armour

Amazingly, spider silk can be used to make fabric. The image below is of a cape woven and embroidered using the silk of golden orb weavers. It was a massive undertaking, so if you’re wanting to incorporate spider fabric into your story, consider ways it might be made possible.

Golden silk cape made from golden orb spider silk

By Cmglee. Available Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0

The first minute of this video discusses the way the spider silk was harvested from golden orb weavers in Madagascar. It sounds like a logistical nightmare. It’s worth noting the spiders were released when the silk supply was exhausted (and re-captured when their silk supply was replenished). I wondered how the spiders would be able to catch prey with no capacity to spin webs? The rest of the video outlines the processing, weaving and embroidery of the fabric. It’s a fantastic video, highly recommend!

                             By Victoria and Albert Museum. Available on Vimeo

The below article reports on the same spider silk fabrics, with images. I was particularly interested by this explanation of the difficulty of producing artificial silk:

Part of the reason it’s so hard to generate spider silk in the lab is that it starts out as a liquid protein that’s produced by a special gland in the spider’s abdomen. Using their spinnerets, spiders apply a physical force to rearrange the protein’s molecular structure and turn it into solid silk. –  1 Million Spiders Make Golden Silk for Rare Cloth

More exciting than spider clothes is the idea of wearable armour made out of spider silk. Imagine a team of elite soldiers wearing spider silk armour, climbing and leaping across hostile terrain, no heavy, stiff material to hinder their movements. Most fascinating, this isn’t spider silk from spiders… this is spider silk from genetically engineered silkworms.

US Army’s Newest Defense: Genetically-Engineered Spider Silk Body Armor

The Army is Testing Genetically Engineered Spider Silk for Body Armor

Graph comparing strength and flexibility of kevlar and spider silk

By Vincentsarego. Available Wikipedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0

I’ll leave you with a talk by Cheryl Hayashi for a few more possibilities to consider. As fodder for science fiction stories, you can’t really beat spider silk. It can provide inspiration for new tech, fabric, acoustics, health, and the ethical make-up of your society. I still don’t love spiders, but you have to admit they are pretty cool, and spider silk is nothing short of amazing.

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