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Cheryl Hayashi

Professor of Biology
Cheryl 
Hayasha
Spider Silk:
By studying the elasticity, tensile strength, genetic structure and mechanical properties of spider silks, UCR researchers are helping biotechnologists develop a variety of new materials for industrial, medical and military applications such as super-strong body armor, specialty rope and surgical microsutures.

Areas of Expertise

Areas of Expertise:
  • 2010 Invited Speaker at TED Conference
  • 2007 MacArthur Fellow
  • 1985 U.S. Presidential Scholar
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Research Summary

Unlocking the secrets of spider silk to decipher its evolution and design a new generation of high-performance materials; characterizing the molecular and mechanical properties of diverse types of silks.

Q&A

Q: Why do research on spider silk?
My research group has studied the extraordinary and diverse mechanical properties of spider silks, such as extreme elasticity and tensile strength and has uncovered the molecular structure of the genes for the proteins that spiders use to make their silken egg cases. These findings not only increase our understanding of spiders, their silks and their evolution, but also will help biotechnologists develop a variety of new materials for industrial, medical and military applications.

Q: What are the potential uses for spider silk?
The kinds of products that are possible are bulletproof vests or other kinds of body armor or equipment armor. Another one would be new varieties of high- performance ropes, where you could have a rope that’s thinner but might be just as strong as the ones we have today. You could use them for sutures, implants — wherever this kind of toughness and flexibility could be an advantage.

Q: Why use spider silk over other materials?
Other materials might be strong, but can also be very stiff. Spider silk is very strong and it has a fair amount of stretch to it. Being protein, it also is biodegradable; so silk could make for a green, eco-friendly product.

Q: Who have been your major influences?
I have had many influences in my life including my biology teacher in high school, my professors at Yale University and the American Museum of Natural History who encouraged me to work with spiders, and my postdoctoral advisor at the University of Wyoming. And let's not forget the spiders themselves. They, too, have greatly inspired me. I'm always learning something new from them, which is what keeps my research going.

Q: Besides your teaching and research activities, what takes up the bulk of your time?
In a word, education. I mentor undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs in my lab. I frequently participate in newspaper, magazine, television, and radio interviews to explain the value of spiders, biomaterials, and biodiversity to the general public. I also spend time doing school outreach because talking about spiders is a great way to discuss science with kids.

Q: What have been some research breakthroughs that came from your lab?
My lab has shown that the amazing properties of spider silks result not just from the spinning process, but also from the ancient protein structures handed down and modified genetically over hundreds of millions of years. We’ve deciphered many silk genes, including ones for the proteins that spiders use to make their egg cases. These discoveries help biotechnologists develop applications for spider silk and shed light on spider evolution. We also determined the first complete gene sequences for the two key proteins in the extremely strong dragline of the black widow spider, which can lead to a variety of new materials for industrial, medical and military uses.
Cheryl Hayasha "Spider silk is very strong and it has a fair amount of stretch to it. Being protein, it also is biodegradable; so silk could make for a green, eco-friendly product."

—Cheryl Hayashi