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J Mol Biol. 2004 Jan 2;335(1):27-40.

Mapping domain structures in silks from insects and spiders related to protein assembly.

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Department of Biomedical Engineering and Bioengineering Center, Tufts University, 4 Colby Street, Medford, MA 02155, USA.


The exceptional solubility in vivo (20-30%, w/v) of the silk proteins of insects and spiders is dictated by both the need to produce solid fibres with a high packing fraction and the high mesogen concentration required for lyotropic liquid crystalline spinning. A further design requirement for silk proteins is a strong predominance of hydrophobic amino acid residues to provide for the hydrophobic interactions, water exclusion, and beta-crystallite formation required to produce strong insoluble threads. Thus, the domain structure of silk proteins needs to enable nanoscale phase separation to achieve high solubility of hydrophobic proteins in aqueous solutions. Additionally, silk proteins need to avoid premature precipitation as beta-sheets during storage and processing. Here we use mapping of domain types, sizes and distributions in silks to identify consistent design features that have evolved to meet these requirements. We show that silk proteins consist of conspicuously hydrophilic terminal domains flanking a very long central portion constructed from hydrophobic blocks separated by hydrophilic ones, discussing the domain structure in detail. The general rules of construction for silk proteins based on our observations should give a useful guide to the way in which Nature has solved the problem of processing hydrophobic proteins in water and how this can be copied industrially. Following these rules may also help in obtaining adequate expression, soluble products and controllable conformational switches in the production of genetically engineered or chemically synthesized silk analogues. Thus these insights have implications for structural biology and relevance to fundamental and applied questions in material science and engineering.

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