The average orb weaving spider’s web found clinging to your window sill is an architectural masterpiece—and it all begins with a single strong strand of silk. The spider will fill in the scaffolding with stabilizing spokes that converge on its center. Super stretchy beams dotted with sticky glue form rings between the spokes, creating the signature gossamer spiral. In the middle, sits a jagged cross-hatching of thick silk where the spider awaits its prey and suitors.
Each of these silken components serves a different purpose and have radically different material properties. How spiders have evolved these qualities over hundreds of millions of years is of particular interest to Cheryl Hayashi, curator of comparative biology at the American Museum of Natural History.
To study silk and its genetic makeup, Hayashi carefully samples the strands of silk emerging from the “business side” of a black widow or dissects out the silk glands from inside a golden orb weaver’s abdomen. Additionally, she collects silk samples right from webs and tests them for their toughness and flexibility.
Hayashi studies a few of the 40,000 known species of spiders, but her research has already illuminated the key genetic markers that produce the unique properties of their silks. But Hayashi has found this information stretches beyond just understanding the nature of spiders’ homes. Her research is helping scientists to develop elastic and strong silks that hopefully could be transformed into durable bulletproof vests, flexible surgical stitches, and even biodegradable fishing gear.
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