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Secrets of the Spider Web

21 February 2007

Natural spider web silks are, weight for weight, six times stronger than steel. They have evolved over hundreds of millions of years as an integral part of the spider’s web, developed during a ferocious arms race with insects. The process has led to a material that is highly optimised for function and outclasses all man made fibres in toughness. In theory, if a spider silk was as thick as a pencil you could tow an ocean liner with it.

As part of National Science and Engineering Week (9-18 March), the Hunterian Museum at The Royal College of Surgeons is hosting an informal lecture on Friday 9th March at 6.30pm entitled ‘Spiders’ webs and silks’ by leading evolutionary biologist and spider expert, Professor Fritz Vollrath, who will share his fascinating research into spiders and their webs. Professor Vollrath will explain how his research into the spinning techniques of spiders’ is the foundation for the production of pioneering new materials for use in surgery.

Speaking ahead of the lecture Professor Vollrath, who is based at the University of Oxford, said:

“There is substantial folklore concerning the wound healing properties of spider webs, and we know that man has used spider web as wound dressing since at least the Middle Ages. There has, however, been very little research into the properties of spider silks and the process by which they are made.”

“During our research we discovered that the spiders’ spinning techniques are completely different from the highly toxic and unsubtle man-made techniques of silk spinning. Spider silks are spun inside the body using a unique spinning mechanism which gives the spider total control over the pulling speed, pressure and chemical exchanges which take place while the silk threads are made. The final product is extremely biologically friendly.”

“If we can unravel the spider’s creative secrets we may one day be able to replicate this natural, eco friendly material in the laboratory.”

The demand for spider silk in the medical profession is high with a myriad of potential uses such as scaffolds, bone grafts or ligament repair. The silks are fully bio-compatible and bio-degradable, making them ideal for suture threads and other implantable biomaterials which need initially to be strong, before breaking down in the body.

Notes to editors

1. The Royal College of Surgeons of England is committed to enabling surgeons to achieve and maintain the highest standards of surgical practice and patient care. Registered charity number: 212808.

2. To book ticket for the lecture please call the Hunterian Museum on 020 7869 6560. Tickets cost £8/ £5 concessions and include a visit to the museum and a glass of wine.

3. National Science and Engineering Week runs from 9-18 March 2007.An online program of events can be found at Science and Engineering Week is coordinated by the BA (British Association for the Advancement of Science) in partnership with the Engineering and Technology Board, and funded by the Department of Trade & Industry