For centuries silkworm filaments have been the focus of R&D innovation centred on textile manufacture with high added value. Most recently, silk research has focused on more fundamental issues concerning bio-polymer structure–property–function relationships. This essay outlines the complexity and fundamentals of silk spinning, and presents arguments for establishing this substance as an interesting and important subject at the interface of systems biology (discovery) and synthetic biology (translation). It is argued that silk is a generic class of materials where each type of silk presents a different embodiment of emergent properties that combine genetically determined (anticipatory) and environmentally responsive components. In spiders’ webs the various silks have evolved to form the interactive components of an intricate fabric that provides an extended phenotype to the spider's body morphology.

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