How a spider could fix your boo-boo
As a Science Illustrated reader, you probably already know that spider webs are made of different kinds of silks. There’s the thick support strands, the sticky line to trap prey, and the ultra-thin lines that transmit vibrations to the waiting spider, so she knows when to strike.
So, three types, right? Well, in fact some species of spiders can generate up to seven different kinds of silk, each for its own specific purpose. And anchoring the whole thing to a plant, or a rock, or your patio is a unique glue that could change the way we think of sticking stuff together.
At Macquarie University in NSW, Dr Jonas Wolff is working on a three-year project to discover the secrets of how spiders glue their silk to anchor points.
He says after extensive analysis, including using atomic force microscopy, that the adhesive power of the glue alone doesn’t account for how strong each anchor point is. The way the spider lays the glue down in a certain pattern is important too.
Dr Wolff says spider silk has intriguing properties and incredible potential, and if we can just figure out how the stuff works, we might be able to synthesise our own version of it.
Why would we want spider silk? Because it’s an ultralight, ultrastrong fibre made of various proteins. You might think of it as a kind of natural nylon, except it’s what scientists call “inert”. That means if you get little bits of it in you, your body just ignores it – unlike, say, asbestos.
Even more importantly, bacteria isn’t able to grow on spider silk. It’s not that the silk has antibacterial properties, more that it just doesn’t give the bacteria anything to feed off. This means silk could become incredibly important in medicine, especial healing.
Think about it: you slice open your hand with a steak knife, rush down to the hospital, and instead of getting stitches, a weird robot “spins” a suture and a bandage over your injury.
Glue from spiders holds the wound shut, and silk covers the area to keep out infection.
Dr Wolff is excited by the possibilities his research could unleash, but he thinks the most likely first application is to, sadly, use the spider’s glue against them.
“If we can find out how the glue works, we should be able to make something that we can coat on a surface, so the glue cannot stick,” he says. That’s a billion dollars, right there.
Using their own tech against them might seem mean, but really all we’d be doing it making it impossible for a spider to build a web on top of your front door. That’s much better than spraying toxic chemicals everywhere just to kill them!
Each species uses glue in a slightly different way. From simple blobs to elaborate patterns, depending on what the spider needs to attach the web to.