Imitating nature’s innovations is not a new strategy, but the exact nature of MacArthur “genius grant” recipient Cheryl Hayashi’s research is both startling and — aside from the predictable, and potentially creepy, military use angle — pretty fascinating. The UC Riverside biology professor has been looking into ways to replicate spider silk and develop some unusual uses for the stuff. –KA What potential uses are there for spider silk and what’s the advantage to using it over other materials?

Hayashi: The kinds of products that are possible are bulletproof vests or other kinds of body armor or equipment armor. Another one would be new varieties of high-performance ropes, where you could have a rope that’s thinner but might be just as strong as ones we have today…. You could use them for sutures, implants — anywhere where this kind of toughness and flexibility could be an advantage.

Other materials might be very strong, but … tend to be very stiff. Spider silks turn out to be very strong but … they have a fair amount of stretch to them. Spider silk also is biodegradable. Many orb-web spinning spiders actually recycle their silk. They eat it. So silk could make for a very green product. Spider silk is also spun under benign ambient room-temperature conditions. That’s really different from something like nylon, which is a petroleum-based product that’s produced under high temperature, high-pressure conditions. Also, Kevlar has great attributes but it’s essentially inert — so if you want to dispose of it you pretty much have to incinerate it.

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