Kaplan's discovery should help various companies around the world that are tying to replicate the spider's art, with various degrees of success. Some have claimed to have made artificial silk, but it's not nearly as good as the real stuff, Kaplan says.
"No one today can tell you that they can then take that silk and process it into materials, fibers or films that have the right kind of mechanical properties," Kaplan says. It's inferior, he adds, because no one as yet has fully "recapitulated the process that nature has provided."
He sees his and Jin's work as "a very important step," but it's still not the last step. It doesn't explain, for example, exactly how spiders and silkworms take those globs in their glands and stretch them into fibers. Edward Atkins of the University of Bristol addressed that issue in a commentary that accompanies Kaplan's paper.
That, Atkins says, "is a question for the future."
But clearly, we are much closer to understanding this mystery now than back in 1881 when George Emery Goodfellow, a physician in Tombstone, Ariz., pulled a silk hanky from the breast pocket of a man who was shot in a gun battle. Inside the hanky the good doctor found two bullets that had smashed the man's chest.
The wounds proved fatal but Goodfellow noted in his memoirs that "not a drop of blood had come from either of the two wounds" because the silk handkerchief had stopped them from ripping through his body.
Goodfellow was so intrigued with that demonstration of the spider's might that he documented other cases that revealed the strength of silk. He probably figured he was on the verge of changing the world. All we had to do was copy the spider, and we could produce a vest that would stop any bullet.
All these years later, we're closer, but we still aren't quite there yet.
Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.