Orb-web weaving spiders rely on their aerial nets to entrap flying prey. A key mechanical feature of orb-web design is the high elasticity of the capture spiral. We report the cloning of substantial cDNA for flagelliform gland silk protein, which forms the core fiber of the catching spiral. Like all silks, the flagelliform protein is composed largely of iterated sequences. The dominant repeat of this protein is Gly-Pro-Gly-Gly-X, which can appear up to 63 times in tandem arrays. This motif likely forms Pro2-Gly3 type II beta-turns and the resulting series of concatenated beta-turns are thought to form a beta-spiral. We propose that this spring-like helix is the basis for the elasticity of silk. The variable fifth position of the motif (X) is occupied by a small subset of residues (Ala, Ser, Tyr, Val). Moreover, these X amino acids occur in specific patterns throughout the repeats. This ordered variation strongly suggests that with hydration, the beta-spirals form hydrogen-bonded networks that increase the elasticity of flagelliform silk. The self-assembly of flagelliform protein monomers into silk fibers may be promoted by beta-spiral/beta-spiral interactions. Additionally, the other two motifs in the flagelliform protein, Gly-Gly-X and a spacer that disrupts the glycine-rich regions, may contribute to the alignment of monomers into fibers. The flagelliform protein cDNA was compared to the other members of the spider silk gene family. We show that all spider silk proteins can be characterized as sets of shared structural modules. The occurrence of these modules among the proteins is inconsistent with the phylogenetic relationships inferred from the C-terminal regions. This observation, along with the high level of variation among individual flagelliform protein repeats, but striking lack of such variation in the other silk proteins, suggests that unusual homogenization processes are involved in silk protein evolution.
Copyright 1998 Academic Press Limited.