Spider silk may hold key to photonic chips and medical imaging

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Imaging inside the body and directing light through photonic chips are two possible applications for natural silk, new research shows.

As a light guide, researchers have found that silk works in a way comparable to glass micro-fibres that carry light within a chip. But silk comes out of the spider ready to use while the glass micro-fibres have to be heated and carefully sculpted. By integrating real spider silk into a microchip, the researchers found that silk could not only propagate light but could also direct light to selected parts of the chip.

In other research spider silk has been found to be a potential light source for taking pictures inside of the body. Natural silk is only five microns in diameter. A spider silk fibre could carry light into the body through a very small opening, providing less invasive ways to do internal imaging or even chemical diagnoses using spectroscopy. The development of silk as a photonic technology has been ongoing at the Institut de Physiques de Rennes and the Université Laval in Quebec for its use in photonic chips, and for biodegradable sensors at Tufts University in Boston. Biomedical engineer Fiorenzo Omenetto of Tufts University in Boston said: ‘I like to think we threw a big stone in the pond and hopefully the waves [of interest] will continue.’

Presentations on the research were given at the Optical Society’s annual meeting, held at the Rochester Riverside Convention Center in Rochester, New York last week.