Increasing silk fibre strength through heterogeneity of bundled fibrils

SW Cranford, JOURNAL OF THE ROYAL SOCIETY INTERFACE, 10, 20130148 (2013).

DOI: 10.1098/rsif.2013.0148

Can naturally arising disorder in biological materials be beneficial? Materials scientists are continuously attempting to replicate the exemplary performance of materials such as spider silk, with detailed techniques and assembly procedures. At the same time, a spider does not precisely machine silk-imaging indicates that its fibrils are heterogeneous and irregular in cross section. While past investigations either focused on the building material (e.g. the molecular scale protein sequence and behaviour) or on the ultimate structural component (e.g. silk threads and spider webs), the bundled structure of fibrils that compose spider threads has been frequently overlooked. Herein, I exploit a molecular dynamics-based coarse-grain model to construct a fully three-dimensional fibril bundle, with a length on the order of micrometres. I probe the mechanical behaviour of bundled silk fibrils with variable density of heterogenic protrusions or globules, ranging from ideally homogeneous to a saturated distribution. Subject to stretching, the model indicates that cooperativity is enhanced by contact through low-force deformation and shear 'locking' between globules, increasing shear stress transfer by up to 200 per cent. In effect, introduction of a random and disordered structure can serve to improve mechanical performance. Moreover, addition of globules allows a tuning of free volume, and thus the wettability of silk (with implications for supercontraction). These findings support the ability of silk to maintain near-molecular-level strength at the scale of silk threads, and the mechanism could be easily adopted as a strategy for synthetic fibres.

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