Spider Silk Gets Its Groove on

November 29, 2012 – 3:33 pm

The molecular structure of artificially produced spider silk with strong, well-linked fibres. Image courtesy Markus Buehler/MIT.

Music may well soothe the savage beast and increase the IQs of young listeners, but can it accelerate the design of biosynthetic materials? A team of researchers seeking to produce a synthetic version of spider silk think so.

Spider silk is one of the strongest materials known and displays a remarkable combination of strength, flexibility and elasticity. We have reported on related research over the years on medtechinsider (here and here), highlighting a number of potential medical applications. Research conducted by Markus Buehler at MIT (Cambridge, MA, USA) has helped to explain the source of the material’s strength: an unusual hierarchical arrangement of protein building blocks.

“We’re trying to approach making materials in a different way,” explains Buehler in a press release issued by the MIT press office. The researchers are starting from the building blocks, “the protein molecules that form the structure of silk. It’s very hard to do this . . . proteins are very complex,” he says.

Rather than take a trial-and-error approach, which is common practice, Buehler and colleagues from Tufts (Somerville, MA, USA) and Boston University (Boston, MA, USA) are using a systematic method, starting with computer modelling of the material’s underlying structure. Even so, the results came as a bit of a surprise, with some materials producing very strong proteins that did not adhere well along with weaker ones that formed a good thread. Based on this outcome, the team surmised that it had to go beyond considering the properties of individual proteins and “think about how they combine to form a well-connected network at a larger scale,” says Buehler. And that’s where musical theory comes in.

The different levels of silk’s structure are similar to the elements of a musical composition, explains Buehler, who enlisted a composer, professor of music and mathematician specialising in category theory to assist with the research. Using analytical tools, the team translated silk structure into musical compositions.

The strong but useless protein molecules translated into aggressive, harsh music whereas the ones that form usable fibres sound softer and more fluid, says Buehler. The researchers now hope to use the molecular-based compositions to predict how well new variations of the material will perform. The result is a faster way to design biosynthesised materials that can be used in tissue engineering and even civil engineering applications, says Buehler.

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