BIODIVERSITY

How a spi­der could fix your boo-boo

Science Illustrated - - CONTENTS -

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.

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