Spider mite silk 'stronger than steel': Western University researchers

·2 min read

Maybe Spiderman was onto something about the power of webs after all.

A Western University husband-wife research duo, Miodrag and Vojislava Grbic, are using spider mite silk to develop a new, microscopic material they say is “stronger than steel” and would be a boon for biomedical developments.

“Silk produced by mites and spiders is one of the most elegant and well-designed materials in existence,” Miodrag Grbic said from his research lab in Spain.

The newly developed biomaterial is twice as stiff as spider silk, 400 times thinner and has a tensile strength four times that of steel. It’s also biodegradable and non-toxic.

The Grbics used the genetic DNA framework of the gorse spider mite, Tetranychus lintearius, to develop a new fibre and biofilm, based on the insect's silk, which they’ve patented.

“These nanoparticles can be used in biomedicine, for example, for targeted drug delivery (in the body) because you need a carrier to deliver drugs to particular cells,” Miodrag said.

Other potential applications range from vaccine delivery and regenerative medicine to food production.

Miodrag said the team is working to see if the material could have applications in COVID-19 vaccines.

Developing the material was a happy coincidence for the couple, born out of a “crazy side project.”

The Grbics originally were sequencing the genome of spider mites in an effort to combat the pests in agriculture only to stumble upon the power of the insect’s silk.

In collaboration with teams in Spain and the United States, researchers used radiation and light, and minuscule force measurements to determine the makeup of spider mite silk.

The Grbics were then able to tweak that code and manufacture their new nanoparticles based entirely on the original spider mite silk.

“Instead of focusing on killing this pest, which is devastating tomatoes and potatoes and greenhouse industry, we can actually learn from this particular animal and turn something negative into something positive,” Miodrag said.

Outside of medicine, the nanoparticles also could be used to coat slow-release fertilizer pellets, pesticides and herbicides to create “smart agrochemicals” for use in sustainable agriculture.

“Having a broader view in a particular project, especially in genome sequencing projects, are really opening gold mines for different applications,” Miodrag said.

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Max Martin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press