Silk and Web Synergy: The Merging of Material and Structural Performance

  • Steven W. Cranford
  • Nicola M. PugnoEmail author
  • Markus J. BuehlerEmail author
Part of the Biologically-Inspired Systems book series (BISY, volume 5)


Millions of years of evolution have adapted spider silks to achieve a range of functions, including the well-known capture of prey, with efficient use of material. From a materials perspective, the exceptional mechanical properties of self-assembling silk biopolymers have been extensively explored, both experimentally and in computational investigations. Yet few studies account for the structural function of silk within the web itself. Recently, a series of investigations have been conducted to examine structure-function relationships across different length scales in silk, ranging from atomistic models of protein constituents to the spider web architecture. Here, through theoretical and computational models, we attempt to reconcile the unique mechanical behavior of spider silk (i.e., material) with the performance of the web itself (i.e., structure), and elucidate the intimate and synergistic relationship between the two – the ultimate merging of material and structure. Particularly, we review recent analyses that considered an entire web structure subject to load, as well as the critical anchorage that secures the web to its (uncertain) environment. Beyond assessment of simple performance, we derive the theoretical basis for the underlying mechanics (through quantized fracture mechanics and the theory of multiple peeling, respectively). As such, the results can be translated to engineered structures in general, beyond the particular case of spider silks and webs. Interestingly, in both cases (web fracture and anchorage failure), the extreme hyperelasticity – i.e. elastic stiffening under large extension – benefits structural performance, in contrast to typical engineering practice (wherein large deformation is typically avoided). The spider web is a highly adapted system where both material and hierarchical structure across all length-scales is critical for its functional properties.


Silk Webs Multiscale Structure-function Modeling Nano-to-macro Materiomics Detachment Multiple peeling Fracture Quantized fracture mechanics Robustness 



NMP is supported by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013)/ERC Grant agreement n° 279985 (Ideas Starting Grant BIHSNAM, 2012–2016). NMP and MJB acknowledge the support from the MIT-Italy program MITOR. MJB and SWC acknowledge support from a NSF-MRSEC grant with additional support from ONR, AFOSR and ARO. SWC acknowledges additional support from Northeastern University, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Laboratory of Nanotechnology in Civil Engineering, Department of Civil and Environmental EngineeringNortheastern UniversityBostonUSA
  2. 2.Laboratory of Bio-Inspired and Graphene Nanomechanics, Department of Civil, Environmental and Mechanical EngineeringUniversità di TrentoTrentoItaly
  3. 3.Center for Materials and MicrosystemsFondazione Bruno KesslerPovo (Trento)Italy
  4. 4.Laboratory for Atomistic and Molecular Mechanics (LAMM), Department of Civil and Environmental EngineeringMassachusetts Institute of TechnologyCambridgeUSA

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