Dragline silk fibers in spider webs help maintain web tension under weight by contracting and relaxing in response to humidity.

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"The abrupt halt of a bumble bee's flight when it impacts the almost invisible threads of an orb web provides an elegant example of the amazing strength and toughness of spider silk. Spiders depend upon these properties for survival, yet the impressive performance of silk is not limited solely to tensile mechanics. Here, we show that silk also exhibits powerful cyclic contractions, allowing it to act as a high performance mimic of biological muscles. These contractions are actuated by changes in humidity alone and repeatedly generate work 50 times greater than the equivalent mass of human muscle. Although we demonstrate that this response is general and occurs weakly in diverse hydrophilic materials, the high modulus of spider silk is such that it generates exceptional force. Furthermore, because this effect already operates at the level of single silk fibers, only 5 µm in diameter, it can easily be scaled across the entire size range at which biological muscles operate. By contrast, the most successful synthetic muscles developed so far are driven by electric voltage, such that they cannot scale easily across large ranges in cross-sectional areas. The potential applicability of silk muscles is further enhanced by our finding that silkworm fibers also exhibit cyclic contraction because they are already available in commercial quantities. The simplicity of using wet or dry air to drive the biomimetic silk muscle fibers and the incredible power generated by silk offer unique possibilities in designing lightweight and compact actuators for robots and micro-machines, new sensors, and green energy production." (Agnarsson et al. 2009:1990)

"Spider dragline silk is a model biological polymer for biomimetic research due to its many desirable and unusual properties. 'Supercontraction' describes the dramatic shrinking of dragline silk fibers when wetted. In restrained silk fibers, supercontraction generates substantial stresses of 40–50 MPa above a critical humidity of ~70% relative humidity (RH). This stress may maintain tension in webs under the weight of rain or dew and could be used in industry for robotics, sensor technology, and other applications. Our own findings indicate that supercontraction can generate stress over a much broader range than previously reported, from 10 to 140 MPa. Here we show that this variation in supercontraction stress depends upon the rate at which the environment reaches the critical level of humidity causing supercontraction. Slow humidity increase, over several minutes, leads to relatively low supercontraction stress, while fast humidity increase, over a few seconds, typically results in higher supercontraction stress. Slowly supercontracted fibers take up less water and differ in thermostability from rapidly supercontracted fibers, as shown by thermogravimetric analysis. This suggests that spider silk achieves different molecular configurations depending upon the speed at which supercontraction occurs. Ultimately, rate-dependent supercontraction may provide a mechanism to tailor the properties of silk or biomimetic fibers for various applications." (Agnarsson et al. 2009:325)

Journal article
Spider silk as a novel high performance biomimetic muscle driven by humidityJournal of Experimental BiologyJune 12, 2009
I. Agnarsson, A. Dhinojwala, V. Sahni, T. A. Blackledge

Journal article
Supercontraction forces in spider dragline silk depend on hydration rateZoologyMay 24, 2009
Ingi Agnarsson, Cecilia Boutry, Shing-Chung Wong, Avinash Baji, Ali Dhinojwala, Andrew T. Sensenig, Todd A. Blackledge

Spider silk used as artificial muscle

Journal article
How super is supercontraction? Persistent versus cyclic responses to humidity in spider dragline silkJournal of Experimental BiologyJune 12, 2009
T. A. Blackledge, C. Boutry, S.-C. Wong, A. Baji, A. Dhinojwala, V. Sahni, I. Agnarsson

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Golden Silk OrbweaverNephila clavipesSpecies

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