Always with the silk

04 Apr

But wouldn’t “The Spinnerets” be a great name for a band?

Comes more news of the wonders of spider silk. Writing about the magical silk is a cottage industry among news people and, it seems, scientists hunting for breakthroughs in materials science. This one researcher has managed, with the usual horrendous amount of effort (mostly on the spiders’ part) to collect enough silk to make a set of violin strings. The strings supposedly sing sweet and mellow, suggesting musical horizons yet to be explored, though no one has yet done the dastardly double-blind study that might disprove this claim, as double-blinds tend to do. Does the “Merry Widow Waltz” really sound different if played on the web of a genuine widow? Listen for yourself.

It’s too bad the silk didn’t come from a violin spider, the nickname for Loxosceles reclusa. Then we could rehabilitate the shy recluse a bit, balancing those gory photos of purported recluse bites you see on the Internet with more peaceful imagery, perhaps of Carnegie Hall or Yo-Yo Ma. Sure, I know the difference between a cello and a violin! The difference is many, many more spiders.

So while Paganini saws away in the background, let us contemplate silk. I saw some other news recently, about a scientist who reported that spider silk has wondrous properties of thermal conductivity, which could throw open the door to innovative insulation, clothing—who knows what. You already know the part about spider silk being “stronger than steel,” though Kevlar is really the fiber to beat (two guesses which would be easier to manufacture). And a few years back some folks wove shimmering golden cloth (below) from the work of more than a million unpaid, non-union golden orb weavers [Nephila inaurata madagascariensis] in Madagascar, who were last seen holding four protest signs apiece (leaving four legs for walking the picket line), Occupying a dusty corner of a museum, and demanding a press conference.

"Ewwwwww!" said the model, five seconds after this photo was taken.

But I want to ponder why there are so many stories about silk at all. You might say because of its commercial potential. Sure, the natural world is full of potential market blockbusters, some of them also humble and easy to find (like aspirin, distilled from tree  bark). Yet this evades the point that at some point in our dim, money-grubbing, lair-lining past, we started looking at animals and plants as things to be used not just in the immediate sense (club the foe with that tree limb and tie him up with this boa) but in the questing sense. Now they all have potential. Living things are made of parts and products. If we just ferret them out and sift them in the lab and have a really productive working lunch with the marketing department, that potential turns into cash and other good things.

I wouldn’t disparage that urge even if I could. No one has less romance for cave-living and/or whistling through the dark alley of microbial predators. Nasty, brutish, and short are my idea for the names of pit bulls, not a description of the life I’d like to lead. What I do disparage is the myopia that comes with a rigidly commercial view. Spiders get it pretty bad, and partly this is why. Their only redeeming feature, from the find-it-and-squish-it crowd, is that they might be coaxed into squirting out something valuable, little cash registers on the cobweb. I can’t count the number of times well-meaning people (and some not so well-meaning) have suggested that spiders not be flattened “because they eat bugs.” Bless you, bless you, lords of the earth, for giving this ’umble arachnid a reason to exist!

Milked, bilked, and de-silked. Where's Woody Guthrie when you need him? (Bernard Gagnon photo; licensed under Creative Commons)

With that in mind, I confess to satisfaction when these blue-sky lab products fail to come to pass. Reports usually dribble off into a comment about how tough it would be to scale up a spider’s work. Ha and yes! Rube Goldberg himself would be hard-pressed to invent a spider sweatshop like the one that imprisoned the golden orb weavers (right) in their little satanic mill (listen! They’re singing “We shall overcome,” with violin accompaniment).

The only success in that vein I’ve read about is the scientists who transferred a spider-silk-making gene into a goat, persuading the goat to secrete silklike proteins in its milk. That might work out, though I observe that it involves transferring a useful spider property into another organism rather than harnessing a spider itself. Transgenic can do that. Nature is more stubborn. How disappointing, then, that these unwelcome animals are so indifferent to redeeming themselves through the marketplace. (And apparently even the “spider goat” investors have gone udders-up.)

Keep an eye out for that binary status when spider stories cross your path. The terror and confusion over spiders as a creature will often peg the fear-o-meter (especially among ye excitable Brits). Then the scientific crowd will amble in with the earnest hope that if you all can keep from napalming every spider you see, we’ll be able to at least make a little money out of them.

Nobody has to defend ponies as worthwhile animals in their own right, or sloths, or otters. Especially otters, good god, wish I’d locked up the tchotchke patent on otters when sailors still thought of them as floating rats … The web-of-life murmuring comes easy for the pretty ones you can turn into turquoise T-shirts and trinkets, doesn’t it? But spiders—give a spider its due today. Admit that he or she has a life worth living for its own sake—or because it’s a graceful big branch on the Tree of Life, a success story tens of millions of years in the making, or even, if you really must be so damn reductive, because it can make mincemeat out of those mosquitoes and flies that bug you so much. That, at least, is a job fit for a spider.

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Now, this I like. They’re trying to crack the chemical code for spider venom. What a funny headline: “Spider venom to be tested for pesticide potential.” Like saying, “Wheat has potential to be food.”


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Posted by on April 4, 2012 in Spider science


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