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J Am Chem Soc. 2007 Apr 4;129(13):3897-905. Epub 2007 Mar 13.

Nephila clavipes spider dragline silk microstructure studied by scanning transmission X-ray microscopy.

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  • 1CERSIM, CREFSIP, Département de Chimie, Université Laval, Québec, Canada G1K 7P4.


Nephila clavipes dragline silk microstructure has been investigated by scanning transmission X-ray microscopy (STXM), a technique that allows quantitative mapping of the level of orientation of the peptide groups at high spatial resolution (<50 nm). Maps of the orientation parameter P2 have been derived for spider silk for the first time. Dragline silk presents a very fine microstructure in which small, highly oriented domains (average area of 1800 nm2, thus clearly bigger than individual beta-sheet crystallites) are dispersed in a dominant, moderately oriented matrix with several small unoriented domains. Our results also highlight the orientation of the noncrystalline fraction in silk, which has been underestimated in numerous structural models. No evidence of either a regular lamellar structure or any periodicity along the fiber was observed at this spatial resolution. The surface of fresh spider silk sections consists of a approximately 30-120 nm thick layer of highly oriented protein chains, which was found to vary with the reeling speed, where web building (0.5 cm/s) and lifeline (10 cm/s) spinning speeds were investigated. While the average level of orientation of the protein chains is unaffected by the spinning speed, STXM measurements clearly highlight microstructure differences. The slowpull fiber contains a larger fraction of highly oriented domains, while the protein chains are more homogeneously oriented in the fastpull fiber. In comparison, cocoon silk from the silkworm Bombyx mori presents a narrower orientation distribution. The strength-extensibility combination found in spider dragline silk is associated with its broad orientation distribution of highly interdigitated and unoriented domains.

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