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Silk is a natural protein that can also be produced synthetically. It has good abilities and versatile possibilities.
Silk is a natural protein that can also be produced synthetically. It has good abilities and versatile possibilities.

Achieving strength and extensibility at the same time has so far been a great challenge in material engineering: increasing strength has meant losing extensibility and vice versa. Now Aalto University and VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland researchers have succeeded in overcoming this challenge, inspired by nature.

The researchers created a truly new bio-based material by gluing together wood cellulose fibres and the silk protein found in spider web threads.

The result is a very firm and resilient material which could be used in the future as a possible replacement for conventional plastic, as part of bio-based composites and in medical applications, surgical fibres, textile industry and packaging.

According to Aalto University Professor Markus Linder, nature offers great ingredients for developing new materials, such as firm and easily available cellulose and tough and flexible silk used in this research.

The advantage with both of these materials is that, unlike a lot of typs of conventional plastic, they are biodegradable and do not damage nature the same way micro-plastic do.

Research Scientist Pezhman Mohammadi from VTT said they used birch tree pulp, broke it down to cellulose nanofibrils and aligned them into a stiff scaffold. At the same time, they infiltrated the cellulosic network with a soft and energy dissipating spider silk adhesive matrix.

Silk is a natural protein which is excreted by animals like silkworms and also found in spider web threads. The spider web silk used by Aalto University researchers, however, is not actually taken from spider webs but is instead produced by the researchers using bacteria with synthetic DNA.

Because we know the structure of the DNA, we can copy it and use this to manufacture silk protein molecules which are chemically similar to those found in spider web threads. The DNA has all this information contained in it,” Linder explained.

Our work illustrates the new and versatile possibilities of protein engineering. In future, we could manufacture similar composites with slightly different building blocks and achieve a different set of characteristics for other applications. Currently we are working on making new composite materials as implants, impact resistance objects and other products,” said Pezhman.

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