Scientists are spinning out the secrets of one of nature’s most intriguing and potentially valuable materials — spider silk.

A strand of spider silk is five times stronger than a steel cable of the same weight, said Hannes Schniepp of the Department of Applied Science at William & Mary. His lab has been unraveling the secrets behind the strength of the brown recluse spider.

Their latest discovery is a surprise: The brown recluse does not spin a single strand of protein fiber.

“We were expecting to find that the fiber was a single mass,” Schniepp explained. “But what we found was that the silk was actually a kind of tiny cable.”

The discovery comes on top of a 2017 report from the same lab revealing that another factor in the strength of brown recluse silk comes from loops spun into the structure. The work is funded by the National Science Foundation. Spider silk is an important topic as its strength and toughness makes synthetic spider silk something of a “holy grail” of materials science and engineering.

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