Do you have any clothes made out of silk? Perhaps a shirt or a scarf? Some kids may even have bed sheets made of silk. Even if you don’t have any silk clothes, you’ve probably felt the smooth, luxurious fabric at one time or another.
Silk is a natural protein fiber that can be woven into fabrics. Most silk used for clothing comes from silkworms or moth caterpillars, whose larvae produce silk to form cocoons. Many other types of insects, including spiders, also produce silk.
If you’ve ever seen silk up close, you know that it shimmers. This is due to the prism-like triangular structure of silk fibers. These fibers refract light at different angles, producing different colors and the shimmering appearance of silk fabric.
As beautiful as silk is, would you believe that one of its most interesting qualities is its strength? It’s true! As strange as it may sound, silk produced by insects can be stronger than steel.
If you think about it a bit, though, it will make more sense. You know that spiders spin webs. What are those webs made of? That’s right! Spiders spin silk spider webs.
What do those webs do? They catch prey. Spider webs are so strong that they can even catch bats and small birds in flight!
Pound for pound, spider silk is stronger than steel. Plus, it’s lightweight and very flexible. Scientists believe that it could one day be used to make all sorts of advanced products, from replacements for steel cables to lightweight body armor for soldiers.
Today’s body armor used by soldiers can be quite heavy. It’s also not very flexible. Flexible, lightweight body armor made from spider silk could make a soldier’s job much easier and more comfortable.
Unfortunately, spider silk is not easy to make. Just ask a spider! While silkworms can be farmed to produce large amounts of silk for fabrics, spiders don’t tend to play well with each other and can’t be farmed in the same way.
However, silkworms may play an important role in turning spider silk into flexible, lightweight body armor one day. Scientists believe they can now genetically modify silkworms to produce a new type of silk that’s a mixture of worm and spider silk that’s still as strong as pure spider silk. If they succeed, there’s no telling what kind of applications this new super-strong, yet flexible silk could have!