UC Riverside

Cheryl Hayashi

Cheryl Hayashi

Putting Spider Silk to Work in Today's World

Living the Promise is a vision of the university as a beacon illuminating knowledge on campus, in the community, and beyond. We all make our own, unique contribution towards this ideal. As a professor of biology, I study the evolution of spiders and their remarkable diversity of silks. By unlocking the secrets of silk design, a new generation of high-performance materials can be made by scaling up to ropes and textiles as well as miniaturizing for nano-scale applications. As an individual researcher, there is only so much I can accomplish by myself and thus for me, living the promise means exposing students to the thrill of discovery and doing my best to encourage budding scientists.

For over a decade, Dr. Cheryl Hayashi and her team of researchers have been working to untangle the mysterious web of spider silk. And what began as a simple job feeding spiders in a lab during her undergraduate years at Yale has evolved into a career that has vaulted her to national prominence as an expert in the biology and morphology of the spider.

In 2007, the biologist received a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship, also known as a “genius grant” and in 2010 she was invited to speak at the annual Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) Conference. She even had the opportunity in 2010 to return to Hawaii to serve a two-week teaching residency for K-12 students at the Iolani School, where she once attended.

Hayashi and her research team, made up of undergraduate and graduate students as well as postdoctoral scholars and visiting professors, characterize the genetic blueprints for the vast variety of silks produced by some of the world’s 40,000 species of spiders. And with some spiders able to create seven different types of silk – for example, there are different silks for draglines, egg cases and capture ‑ there is a lot to research.

Her lab has been responsible for several key discoveries about the proteins in the silks and has worked towards understanding the genetic properties of spider silks, including strength, elasticity and toughness.

A strand of spider silk is one-tenth the diameter of a human hair. When compared to a length of steel of the same diameter, spider silk is five times stronger yet lighter than cotton.

These findings not only increase our understanding of spiders and their silks, but also will help biotechnologists develop a variety of new materials for industrial, medical and military applications. Potential uses include lightweight super-strong body armor, specialty ropes, biodegradable surgical sutures, components of medical devices and high-tech athletic attire.

But while practical applications may be years away, Hayashi believes that some of the material science applications may be put into practice in the near future. And she continues to work to understand the behaviors and morphology behind spiders’ utilization of different silks for various tasks.

See Professor Cheryl Hayashi interviewed about spider silk research part 1 and part 2.

Visit Hayashi's faculty profile.

See Hayashi’s profile from the 2010 TED Conference.

Read about Hayashi’s residency at the Iolani School.

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