Performance materials of the future just might get a boost from a family of insects.

German researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research have developed a range of rigid and stable biofibers made from silk protein found in a family of chrysopidae insects.

Green lacewing eggs.Green lacewing eggs.It’s hoped the fibers, developed in conjunction with German biotechnology company AMSilk, will help create a new class of high-grade and rigid materials for lightweight plastics in the automotive and aerospace industries.

To protect their offspring from being eaten by predators near the ground, green lacewings, as the insects are known, deposit their eggs on the underside of leaves on the ends of stable silk threads. These so-called egg stalks are around 15 micrometers thick and can hold the weight of the eggs.

As explained by researchers, in order to produce these fibers, the green lacewing excretes a protein substance onto the leaf. The egg is then laid in the droplet and perpendicularly pulled out from the leaf. The resulting silk thread then hardens in the air.

“Unlike most other types of silk, the green lacewing’s egg stalk has a special structure with fascinating mechanical properties: green lacewing silk is extremely rigid and stable. We would like to transfer these special properties to fibers made from this silk,” says Fraunhofer IAP biotechnologist Martin Schmidt.

However, until now, it hasn’t been possible to produce this type of silk protein in sufficient quantities and purities. That’s where project collaborators AMSilk and biomaterials researchers at the University of Bayreuth came in.

AMSilk, a commercial developer of silk-based biopolymers, is working on manufacturing large amounts of green lacewing silk protein with the aid of bacteria using a biotech process. That process is being developed by researchers at the University of Bayreuth who constructed a special gene sequence that enables bacteria to produce the silk protein.

Fraunhofer’s Schmidt is now optimizing the manufacturing process so that the silk protein can be produced inexpensively on an industrial scale.

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