The American brown recluse spider is already known for being one of the most venomous arachnids on the planet. It turns out, however, that the spider also has unusually strong silk – stronger even than regular spider silk. Scientists from Oxford University and Virginia's College of William & Mary have recently discovered the secret of that strength, and they believe that it could have some practical applications … perhaps even in outer space.

There are actually two reasons why the brown recluse's silk is so strong. For one thing, the spider adds loops to it, as the silk is being spun. "The theory of knots adding strength is well proven," says William & Mary's Prof. Hannes Schniepp. "But adding loops to synthetic filaments always seems to lead to premature fiber failure."

That's where the silk's second unique characteristic comes in. Whereas regular spider silk is cross-sectionally round like string, the recluse's silk is flat like a nano-scale ribbon. This apparently makes it more flexible, keeping it from failing prematurely.

Using computer models, the researchers found that by adding even a single loop to a flat synthetic fiber, that fiber's strength was greatly increased. Adding more loops enhanced the effect even further.

"This right away suggests possible applications," says Oxford's Prof. Fritz Vollrath. "For example, carbon filaments could be looped to make them less brittle, and thus allow their use in novel impact-absorbing structures. One example would be spider-like webs of carbon filaments floating in outer space, to capture the drifting space debris that endangers astronaut lives and satellite integrity."

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Material Horizons.

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