The coiled coil silk of bees, ants, and hornets


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In this article, we review current knowledge about the silk produced by the larvae of bees, ants, and hornets [Apoidea and Vespoidea: Hymenoptera]. Different species use the silk either alone or in composites for a variety of purposes including mechanical reinforcement, thermal regulation, or humidification. The characteristic molecular structure of this silk is α-helical proteins assembled into tetrameric coiled coils. Gene sequences from seven species are available, and each species possesses a copy of each of four related silk genes that encode proteins predicted to form coiled coils. The proteins are ordered at multiple length scales within the labial gland of the final larval instar before spinning. The insects control the morphology of the silk during spinning to produce either fibers or sheets. The silk proteins are small and non repetitive and have been produced artificially at high levels by fermentation in E. coli. The artificial silk proteins can be fabricated into materials with structural and mechanical properties similar to those of native silks. © 2011 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Biopolymers 97: 446–454, 2012.