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

Wired.com:

Wired.com: 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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