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Pacific Biology Professor Receives Grant to Study Spider Silk: Silk Research could Revolutionize Engineering, Medicine

Apr 15, 2010
Bullet proof vests, seat belts and artificial ligaments could all be stronger with the help of black widow spiders - and a little research on how to get those spiders to help out. That's the gist of a research grant awarded to University of the Pacific Biology professor Craig Vierra from the National Science Foundation. Vierra will continue his research on black widow spider silk, which is five times stronger than steel and could potentially be used to enhance materials used in protective armor, medical supplies, automobiles, and more.

The National Science Foundation-Research in Undergraduate Institutions grant will provide $446,749 over four years for the research project, "Molecular Characterization of Black Widow Spider Silk." Funding for the project began April 1 and will continue until March 31, 2014. Led by Vierra, the project will provide numerous research opportunities for undergraduates.

For the past 10 years, Vierra has been studying the molecular mechanics of black widow spider silk. Due to its high tensile strength, the silk is extremely tough and elastic. Scientists around the world, including Vierra, are seeking methods to produce synthetic spider silk for human applications. The synthetic silk has a number of potential medical, military and commercial uses, such as in airbags, medical sutures, fishing lines and ropes.

"It is imperative that we remain innovative, exploring new, emerging areas of science that investigate the potential for synthetic silk and its uses as future biomaterials," said Vierra, co-chair of Pacific's Department of Biological Sciences. "If successful, this technology could revolutionize the field of engineering, nanotechnology and medicine."

Officially awarded on Jan. 22, the grant will provide crucial funding for Pacific researchers as they strive to better understand how spider silk proteins are assembled into silk fibers. Because silk fibers are made of mostly protein, synthetic silk is non-toxic when degraded, making it environmentally friendly.

The project will broaden student research opportunities in the areas of molecular and organismal biology, biochemistry and engineering. Students will help capture black widow spiders from the wild, dissect the spiders to study their silk-producing glands, and collect silk fibers to analyze the identities of the proteins found in the threads.

Undergraduates will also participate in the cloning and expression of spider silk genes in bacteria and yeast and the spinning of artificial spider silk fibers, as well as explore the mechanisms that control spider silk gene expression.