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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 June 2007, 16:09 GMT 17:09 UK
Spider silk's 'DNA breakthrough'
By Neil Bowdler
BBC News

US scientists have identified the genes behind silk spun by the black widow spider, which they say could help make super-strong body armour.

The University of California biologists also hope to produce other materials based on the silk's structure.

Black widow spiders' silk apparently has a tensile strength about half of that of steel but is much less dense and much more stretchable.

The black widow spider is among the most venomous spiders in North America.

Hanging around

Researchers at the University of California identified the genetic recipe behind the black widow spider's silk, mapping its DNA.

With that genetic code, they plan to synthesise the so-called "dragline" silk - which is apparently one of the strongest in the spider kingdom.

The university's Dr Nadia Ayoub says the commercial applications could be widespread - from stitching for surgery to ultra-strong cabling.

"There's a lot of interest in using silk for something like micro-sutures because it's incredibly strong for how small it is.

"Actually, all the things that the Spiderman does with silk, if you could make an artificial fibre that was that big you could do all of those things. You could hang from walls," Dr Ayoub says.

Other commercial applications cited by the researchers included high-tech athletic clothing.

They are now trying to synthesise the protein that makes up the silk in large enough quantities to make commercial production a possibility.

The biologists are using tomato plants into which they are injecting genetic material in the hope that the tomato seed will yield this spider-silk constituent.

The university is also trying to get a patent on their discovery.


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