Spider silk softening by water uptake: an AFM study

Eur Biophys J. 2008 Feb;37(2):197-204. doi: 10.1007/s00249-007-0216-5. Epub 2007 Sep 13.


We have investigated the mechanical properties of spider dragline fibers of three Nephila species under varied relative humidity. Force maps have been collected by atomic force microscopy. The Young's modulus E was derived from the indentation curves of each pixel by the modified Hertz model. An average decrease in E by an order of magnitude was observed upon immersion of the fiber in water. Single fiber stretching experiments were carried out for comparison, and also showed a strong dependence on relative humidity. However, the absolute values of E are significantly higher than those obtained by indentation. The results of this work thus show that the elastic properties of spider silk are highly anisotropic, and that the silk softens significantly for both tensile and compressional strain (indentation) upon water uptake. In addition, the force maps indicate a surface structure on the sub-micron scale.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Elasticity / drug effects
  • Fibroins / chemistry*
  • Humidity
  • Microscopy, Atomic Force*
  • Spiders / drug effects*
  • Stress, Mechanical
  • Surface Properties / drug effects
  • Water / pharmacology*


  • Water
  • Fibroins