Comparison of embiopteran silks reveals tensile and structural similarities across taxa

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American Chemical Society


Embioptera is a little studied order of widely distributed, but rarely seen, insects. Members of this group, also called embiids or webspinners, all heavily rely on silken tunnels in which they live and reproduce. However, embiids vary in their substrate preferences and these differences may result in divergent silk mechanical properties. Here, we present diameter measurements, tensile tests, and protein secondary structural analyses of silks spun by several embiid species. Despite their diverse habitats and phylogenetic relationships, these species have remarkably similar silk diameters and ultimate stress values. Yet, ultimate strain, Young’s modulus, and toughness vary considerably. To better understand these tensile properties, Fourier transformed infrared spectroscopy was used to quantify secondary structural components. Compared to other arthropod silks, embiid silks are shown to have consistent secondary structures, suggesting that commonality of amino acid sequence motifs and small differences in structural composition can lead to significant changes in tensile properties.