Shrimp has 'silk-spinning skills'

A false colour image of the shrimp  Crassicorophium bonellii The animal's "specialist secretory legs" produce the sticky, fibrous material

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A tiny underwater creature spins silk in order to bind together its sand grain house, researchers have discovered.

The shrimp, Crassicorophium bonellii, produces fibres that combine barnacle cement biology with spider silk production techniques.

The resulting "gossamer threads" are sticky and salt-water resistant.

The Oxford team says this is a new example of "nature's way of engineering a highly functional material".

Their discovery is published in the journal Naturwissenschaften.

The shrimp builds a shelter from sand grains and other material

One of the authors of the study, Prof Fritz Vollrath from the University of Oxford, explained that the shrimp released the material through ducts on its legs.

"It uses the fibres to tie together bits and bobs to make its house," Prof Vollrath explained to BBC. "It uses grains of sand, pieces of vegetation, algae, even its own faeces."

Start Quote

Threads binding the shrimp's sand grain house

We want to be inspired by nature to see how she does the job”

End Quote Prof Fritz Vollrath University of Oxford

Although it was already understood that the creature produced a sticky substance from its legs, the scientists discovered that it spins this substance into a silk, in much the same way that spiders do - pulling it through a duct to make a functional thread.

Other than its resistance to salt and water, the team know very little about the properties of the material.

"We suspect it will have comparable properties [to spider silk] - strong and stretchy," said Prof Vollrath.

"But the thread has evolved to be spun underwater and to stay underwater throughout its life, so it will have a few tricks to be able to perform in marine environment."

The scientist and his team hope that by revealing the biological secrets of such materials, they might lay the foundations for useful products, such as marine glues or barnacle-resistant coatings for boat hulls.

Understanding exactly how barnacles stick, for example, could enable scientists to develop surface coatings that they would be unable to stick to.

"The extra costs of drag in shipping worldwide is about $400m (£250m) annually," Dr Vollrath said. "You could save that if you [had a way] to keep the bottoms of boats clean.

"It's not that we want to copy things from nature," he added. "It's more that we want to be inspired by nature to see how she does the job."

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