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Cheryl Hayashi

Professor and Vice Chair of Biology
Discovering the Strengths of Spider Silk
By studying the elasticity, tensile strength, genetic structure and mechanical properties of spider silks, Cheryl Hayashi is 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

Select Honors and Distinctions

  • 2010 Invited Speaker at TED Conference
  • 2007 MacArthur Fellow
  • 1985 U.S. Presidential Scholar


Q: Why is your research important?
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 some possible implications of your findings?
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. Other materials might be strong, but can also be very stiff whereas spider silk is very strong and 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: How is your research being used?
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 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.

Q: What is something interesting about spider silk that most people don’t know?
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.

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 does “Living the Promise” mean to you?
As an individual researcher, there is only so much I can accomplish by myself. For me, living the promise means exposing students to the thrill of discovery and doing my best to encourage budding scientists.
Cheryl Hayashi “There is beauty and knowledge to be discovered in nature.”

—Cheryl Hayashi
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