Molecular and nanostructural mechanisms of deformation, strength and toughness of spider silk fibrils

Andrea Nova, Sinan Keten, Nicola M. Pugno, Alberto Redaelli, Markus J. Buehler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

309 Scopus citations


Spider dragline silk is one of the strongest, most extensible and toughest biological materials known, exceeding the properties of many engineered materials including steel. Silk features a hierarchical architecture where highly organized, densely H-bonded beta-sheet nanocrystals are arranged within a semiamorphous protein matrix consisting of 31-helices and beta-turn protein structures. By using a bottom-up molecular-based approach, here we develop the first spider silk mesoscale model, bridging the scales from Angstroms to tens to potentially hundreds of nanometers. We demonstrate that the specific nanoscale combination of a crystalline phase and a semiamorphous matrix is crucial to achieve the unique properties of silks. Our results reveal that the superior mechanical properties of spider silk can be explained solely by structural effects, where the geometric confinement of beta-sheet nanocrystals, combined with highly extensible semiamorphous domains, is the key to reach great strength and great toughness, despite the dominance of mechanically inferior chemical interactions such as H-bonding. Our model directly shows that semiamorphous regions govern the silk behavior at small deformation, unraveling first when silk is being stretched and leading to the large extensibility of the material. Conversely, beta-sheet nanocrystals play a significant role in defining the mechanical behavior of silk at large-deformation. In particular, the ultimate tensile strength of silk is controlled by the strength of beta-sheet nanocrystals, which is directly related to their size, where small beta-sheet nanocrystals are crucial to reach outstanding levels of strength and toughness. Our results and mechanistic insight directly explain recent experimental results, where it was shown that a significant change in the strength and toughness of silk can be achieved solely by tuning the size of beta-sheet nanocrystals. Our findings help to unveil the material design strategy that enables silk to achieve superior material performance despite simple and inferior material constituents. This concept could lead to a new materials design paradigm, where enhanced functionality is not achieved using complex building blocks but rather through the utilization of simple repetitive constitutive elements arranged in hierarchical structures from nano to macro.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2626-2634
Number of pages9
JournalNano Letters
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 14 2010


  • Biological material
  • H-bond
  • Nanomechanics
  • Nanostructure
  • Protein
  • Spider silk

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Bioengineering
  • Chemistry(all)
  • Materials Science(all)
  • Condensed Matter Physics
  • Mechanical Engineering


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