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Silk: saves bodies & environment

Science | Technology

Pete Wilton | 09 Dec 09

Golden orb spider - Nephila clavipes

A book currently doing the rounds at the Copenhagen climate talks highlights the impact that biomimetic science could have on medical and green technologies.

Gunter Pauli's The Blue Economy gives the work of Fritz Vollrath of Oxford University's Department of Zoology and the Oxford Silk Group as an example of where learning from nature can pay off.

Fritz started off by studying how the golden silk orb weaver spider in Panama composed and recycled its silk and managed to spin it into complex three-dimensional forms.

Researchers at the Group were able to apply these lessons to processes to manufacture silk tubes and filaments that could be used as conduits for nerve regeneration, medical sutures, and devices to regenerate damaged cartilage and bone tissues. They also showed how such materials could be used to replace titanium parts in products from razors to airplane parts.

Pauli argues that replacing current industrial processes with more biomimetic ones could help us reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well as shepherding the planet's scarce resources.

Fritz and his team have already made a number of contributions to turning such ideas into commercial realities with the founding of spin-out firms such as Orthox, Suturox, and Neurotex, all based on pioneering research at Oxford.

Fritz tells me that he hopes there could be many more benefits from the group's ongoing research which received a boost last year with an ERC Advanced Grant supporting his SABIP - Silk as Biomimetic Ideals for Polymers project.

Could spiders and silkworms really help to save the world? Watch this space...

Image: golden orb spider Nephila Clavipes. By Maximus Aurelius via Wikimedia Commons.

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