Spider Silk “Superlens” Breaks Microscopy Barrier

Scientists improve upon the optical microscope using a readily available natural material.

Aug 24, 2016
Ben Andrew Henry

WIKIMEDIA, SHARP PHOTOGRAPHY

It’s long been thought impossible for even the best optical microscopes to magnify objects any smaller than 200 nm for viewing, due to the natural diffraction of light. But scientists from Bangor University and Oxford University, both in the U.K., have cracked this so-called diffraction limit using a biological substance: spider silk. Nephila edulis silk acts like an extra lens that adds two to three times magnification to an image, according to a press release.

Unlike a typical lens, study coauthor Zengbo Wang explained in the statement that using this spider silk-enhanced “superlens” is like “looking through a cylindrical glass bottle . . . the single filament provides a one-dimensional viewing image along its length.”

Just weeks earlier, the team from Bangor University created the first such superlens out of nanobeads, but Wang noted that “production of manufactured superlenses involves some complex engineering processes that are not widely accessible to other researchers.”

The Bangor scientists collaborated with Fritz Vollrath’s team at Oxford, who study spider silks, in order to develop a superlens from natural material. Zengbo explained: “A spider-silk nanoscope would be robust and economical, which in turn could provide excellent manufacturing platforms for a wide range of applications.”

“These lenses could be used for seeing and viewing previously ‘invisible’ structures, including engineered nano-structures and biological micro-structures as well as, potentially, native germs and viruses,” Vollrath told BBC News