Introducing Material of the Week: Spider Silk

24 Sep
Madagascar golden orb spider (Nephila madagascariensis)

Madagascar golden orb spider (Nephila madagascariensis) Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Followers of this blog might have noticed that the Molecule of the Week (MotW) feature took a summerish hiatus. I’ve decided to expand the feature to include interesting materials, which are often more complex mixtures, either of synthetic or naturally-made compounds. So, I’m adding Material of the Week (MatotW in blogospheric shorthand) to help round out the idea.

This week, a material near and dear to my Webby heart: spider silk.

The American Museum of Natural History in New York is now displaying a length of cloth made entirely from Madagascar golden orb spider silk . At a half million dollar price tag and requiring 1 million spiders, this is the fabric of kings (maybe even Louis XIV) and involves some some serious production snags (See the NY Times or Wired Science for more on those issues).

The silks are made of structural proteins, chains of amino acid building blocks, that in different combinations do the work of living systems and make up other sorts of animal fibers such as hair. The animals use different combinations for different purposes: making webs, catching prey, building nests, or wooing a mate, notes Cheryl Hayashi’s UC Riverside website. (She studies these materials and garnered a MacArthur grant in 2007 for her work).

istockphoto/Taho_H

istockphoto/Taho_H

I’m already making plans to go see the spider silk fabric (and still trying to imagine lining up spiders in harnesses to produce it– quite the mental image). But spider silk reminds me of how much we humans can learn from our fellow inhabitants on this planet. Sure, the military and industry might find all sorts of uses for these threads from armor to moorings. But in this moment I’m simply awed by the natural engineering process and its outcome — a spider hanging from a single super-strong thread, spinning a lacy net to catch prey, and a few dew drops.

Reflecting E.B. White’s words back on Charlotte: “Some Web.”

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One Response to “Introducing Material of the Week: Spider Silk”

  1. Suzanne Dell'Orto September 25, 2009 at 9:37 pm #

    I read about this in the New York Times and I was fascinated. I’m wondering if it’s worth the price of admission to the AMNH (not just the money, mind you…the teeming hoards of school children unloaded on buses!).

    The last time I was at the AMNH it was to see the giant squid, which was a bit disappointing in real life. It looked like a big white wet knitted hat that had been unraveled. I have higher hopes for this fabric, although the more I think about it the grosser it seems (not sure why, since spiders don’t gross me out, nor do silkworms).

    I hope they have some video of how they “harnessed” these spiders! It’s as interesting as the fabric!

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