PhD opportunity: Spider silk

Spider silk: structure mechanics and synthesis
Spider silks possess a range of qualities that are rarely found simultaneously in one material, and it is no surprise that an enormous effort has been made to replicate or learn from them.1,2 Toughness, extensibility and strength are only a few of the desirable traits that make spider silk of such interest. Silk is biodegradable and, unlike synthetic high-performance fibres such as Kevlar, it is extremely lightweight.3,4 A further advantage lies in its processing conditions and requirements. Whereas production of Kevlar and other such synthetics comes at a high monetary and environmental cost, spiders spin recyclable fibres on demand, under ambient conditions using water as a solvent, all at the energetic cost of an insect dinner.5,6

Two aspects of spider silk are particularly interesting: the structure-property-function relationships responsible for the phenomenal properties of spider silk; and the processing that produces them. Projects are available across these areas, and will be defined based on the aptitude and specific interests of the prospective student. Students with a physics, materials, mechanical or electrical engineering background are encouraged to apply.

 

Research Activities
The student will investigate one, or a combination, of the following:

  • Characterisation and exploration of self-healing mechanisms;
  • Reproduction of spider silk spinning physics in commercially viable materials;
  • Exploring the natural spider silk production pathway, from cells to fibres;
  • Translation of structure-property-function relationships to new materials.

 

Expected Outcomes
This work will advance the understanding of spider silk mechanics, and provide a path to reproducing the production and performance in a new generation of materials. Specific applications will be in high-performance industrial fibres, new biomaterials, optical devices, and regenerative medicine.

 

References
1          Brown, C. P., Whaite, A. D., MacLeod, J. M., Macdonald, J. & Rosei, F. With great structure comes great functionality: Understanding and emulating spider silk. Journal of Materials Research30, 108-120 (2015).

2          Brown, C. P., Rosei, F., Traversa, E. & Licoccia, S. Spider silk as a load bearing biomaterial: tailoring mechanical properties via structural modifications. Nanoscale3, 870-876 (2011).

3          Widhe, M., Johansson, J., Hedhammar, M. & Rising, A. Invited review: Current progress and limitations of spider silk for biomedical applications. Biopolymers97, 468-478 (2012).

4          Bittencourt, D., Oliveira, P. F., Prosdocimi, F. & Rech, E. L. Protein families, natural history and biotechnological aspects of spider silk. Genet. Mol. Res.11, 2360-2380 (2012).

5          Vollrath, F. & Porter, D. Silks as ancient models for modern polymers. Polymer50, 5623-5632 (2009).

6          Rising, A. Controlled assembly: A prerequisite for the use of recombinant spider silk in regenerative medicine? Acta Biomaterialia10, 1627-1631 (2014).