Grants help fund USU spider silk research

Aug 9, 2013

Researchers at Utah State University received a pair of grants totaling more than a million dollars to further explore advancements in spider silk technology.

The USU Synthetic Spider Silk Lab was recently awarded $1.15 million in U.S. Navy and National Science Foundation grants.

USTAR professor Randy Lewis and his team are working with a grant from the Office of Naval Research to synthesize a type of glue similar to an adhesive silk produced by orb-weaving spiders.

The USU Synthetic Spider Silk Lab was recently awarded $1.15M in Navy and National Science Foundation grants.
Credit Utah State University

“The spiders we use actually make six different kinds of silk," he said.

One type is known as piriform silk – a sort of adhesive cement spiders use to glue intersecting threads in a web together. The sticky silk also allows spiders to tether a drag line to surfaces.

“When they’re crawling around, they actually tie their silk down so if they fall they’ll only fall to the last place they attached it," he added. "This particular silk, they can use it to attach it to glass, Teflon, almost any surface whatsoever.”

The natural piriform silk is also unaffected by moisture – something Lewis says appeals to the Navy, which is working to develop an adhesive that works underwater.

Using funding from the National Science Foundation, Lewis’ team is working with three private companies to develop spider silk applications for the biomedical and manufacturing industries.

“Things like very tiny sutures," he said. "For composite materials where what you need is something that has flexibility that, for instance, carbon fibers don’t have. Carbon fibers are very stiff; they don’t extend at all. So we can use our material to help provide a composite material with a little more flexibility so it doesn’t break as easily.”

Lewis says the grant funding will allow him to employ several undergraduate research assistants.

"I'm involving a large number of students who are getting a real-world look at how to take the research they're doing and how to make something out of it," he said.