Academic Minute
5:00 am
Mon March 31, 2014

Dr. Craig Vierra, University of the Pacific - The Race to Replicate Spider Silk

Despite all the advances in technology, Mother Nature remains our most skilled engineer.

Dr. Craig Vierra, professor and assistant chair of the University of the Pacific's College of Biological Sciences, is working on a way to replicate spider silk. 

Dr. Craig Vierra - University of the Pacific

Dr. Craig Vierra is a professor and assistant chair in the University of the Pacific's College of Biological Sciences. His research centers on understanding the molecular mechanics of black widow spider silk and how these properties relate to the fibers high tensile strength, elasticity, and toughness. He's written extensively on the subject and his goal is to produce fibers for industrial applications that mimic natural silk. He earned his PhD in biochemistry from the University of California Riverside in 1994.

About Dr. Vierra

Dr. Vierra's TED Talk

Dr. Craig Vierra – Race to replicate spider silk

The next time you roll up a magazine to swat a spider, stop, or risk interrupting hundreds of millions of years in the development of a material that will revolutionize engineering in our lifetime.

The effort to provide an environmentally sound, cost-effective, lightweight and exceedingly strong material to build a broad range of products has been under development for hundreds of millions of years – by spiders. Species such as the black widow use six or seven different spider silk fibers to capture prey, move about, protect their young, and more simply to survive.

That same spider silk is two to three times tougher than materials man uses now for such things as body armor for soldiers. It’s lighter, too, and it is biodegradable over time, making it ideally suited for the environment.

It’s not surprising, then, that the race is on at laboratories around the world to be the first to crack the code of spider silk and replicate it in mass quantities.

In my lab at University of the Pacific, my students and I are at work figuring out how to produce large amounts of the spiders’ proteins in a cost-effective way, spin the synthetic fiber in such a way as to trap the water molecules inside that are critical to the fiber’s mechanical properties, and integrate those fibers into materials, perhaps as composites. Then we can make everything from stronger, lighter replacements for Kevlar in body armor and plastics in automobiles to stronger, lighter aerospace components. The possibilities are boundless.

We are standing on the precipice of truly revolutionary work. In the next five years, we should see the next major step in the development of strong, lightweight material that spiders have been developing for hundreds of millions of year. It will be interesting to see what we come up with.

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