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Arch Biochem Biophys. 1991 Jan;284(1):53-7.

Molecular mechanism of spider silk elasticity.

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Department of Molecular Biology, University of Wyoming, Laramie 82071.


Spider major ampullate (drag-line) silk is an extracellular fibrous protein which has impressive characteristics of strength and elasticity. This silk has been hypothesized to predominantly consist of a single protein, containing regions of antiparallel beta-sheets which are interspersed with amorphous segments responsible for its elastic properties. A rubber-like mechanism has been suggested to account for this elasticity, but the specific molecular mechanism is unknown. Using Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) we found evidence of either helix formation or reorientation of preexisting helices when axial tension is applied to the spider silk fiber. CD studies of a peptide derived from the silk gene repeat sequence show that it can form beta-sheets at high temperatures while alpha-helices are induced in 2,2,2-trifluoroethanol. These results suggest a possible molecular mechanism for the elasticity of spider silk fibers. It is proposed that the elastic process involves the formation and disruption of alpha-helical Ala-rich regions which are interspersed among stable beta-sheet domains.

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