This Wednesday evening kicks off a super-exciting four-part NOVA series about nanotechnology called Making Stuff. Each episode focuses on one general concept: stronger, smaller, cleaner, smarter. We could just squeal.
Courtesy National Science Foundation
I was honored to get a sneak-preview of the first episode, Making Stuff: Stronger in San Francisco in October, and found myself in some crazy conversations afterward about bioengineering and media ethics. You see, scientists have, uh, installed spider silk-making genes into goats, thereby making the goat milk spinnable into spider silk. The Making Stuff episode covers this, then ends by showing the host happily drinking a glass of milk, and we’re left wondering if it's actually the spider-silk-milk that he’s downing without a care in the world.
Courtesy National Science Foundation
2020 Science, the blog of Andrew Maynard, scientist, science policy guru, and Director of the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, kindly takes the conversation beyond “ew!” to “responsible?” Andrew was also in the room for the special preview, and raised far more eloquent concerns than I (I’m sorry – I’m still stuck on the spiders…ew), and then blogged about them. And then got substantive responses, including one from Making Stuff’s producer, Chris Schmidt. All a fascinating read.
Andrew, being the smart, informed fellow that he is, pointed out that this whole spidergoat concept is old news.
Courtesy National Science FoundationNo less icky and/or creepy I would add, but still old news. Can’t wait until the Making Stuff episode that delves into the topic on Wednesday? Take a peek at the short video put together by the National Science Foundation.
Courtesy Tom or JerryIs this maybe a cool thing? Spider silk from genetically engineered silk worms. Or, at least, hybrid spider/silk worm silk.
Why do we want silk worms that produce spider silk, when they're already so good at pooping out their own worm silk, you ask? Because spider silk is awesome. It's super strong (as strong or stronger than most of our best artificial materials), and spiders manage to manufacture it at low temperatures, low pressures, and with water as a solvent (and it would be great if we could make strong materials that way). However, unlike wormy little silk worms (caterpillars, anyway), spiders don't play nice—you can have lots of silk worms together, and they'll all be happy to spin little silk cocoons, but if you put a lot of spiders together, they'll be most happy killing each other. Also, they are creepy.
Genetic engineers had managed to insert genes for the production of spider silk protein into goats, who expressed them by producing the material in their milk, but I don't believe it had all the qualities of true spider silk, and I don't imagine that's an ideal way to produce it.
But now scientists at the University of Notre Dame, the University of Wyoming, and Kraig Biocraft Laboratories, Inc. have succeeded in transplanting spider silk genes into silk worms. The silk they produce isn't quite as strong as spider silk, but researchers believe that they may eventually be able to get genetically modified worms to produce silk even stronger than native spider silk.
OMG: the females of this newly-discovered species of orb web spider have a legspan of almost five inches. I don't need to say any more -- you'll want to read (and see!) for yourself.
Courtesy Tai Po Kau Nature ReserveAfter decades of frustration and failure, mankind’s dream of weaving a blanket entirely from the stuff of nightmares has become a reality.
For centuries, the very possibility of creating fabric from nightmares was considered little more than a fever dream, and the criminally insane resigned themselves to nightmare cloth substitutes, like hammered-flat baby rabbits, and prison toilet paper. Inventive though these are, like soymilk, they fooled no one.
Then, at the end of the 19th century, reports began to filter from Africa that a French missionary in Madagascar, exploring the dark peaks of his own madness, was creating fabrics of almost pure nightmare.
The missionary had supposedly created a spider-milking machine, into which he was placing massive Golden orb-weaver spiders, collected in their hundreds by local young girls. (Having little girls collect the spiders made the nightmare purer, but was not strictly necessary. Leave it to a missionary for such meticulous detail.)
The spiders were restrained in “a sort of stocks,” and then the beginnings of a strand of silk was coaxed from their abdomens and attached to a hand cranked wheel, at which point several hundred yards of the orb-weavers’ characteristically golden silk could be withdrawn from each spider. When the creatures could yield no more silk, they were released, apparently unharmed, back into the wild, where they would regenerate their webbing material after several days. The spooled spider silk could then be woven like any other material… but scarier.
Seemingly too “good” to be true, the missionary’s experiments were never replicated, and generations of madmen made do with sheets of dried bat saliva and mortuary blankets. Until now.
A “textile expert” and a visionary in what liberal arts colleges refer to as “insane studies,” Simon Peers and Nicholas Godley, recreated the missionary’s spider-milking machine, and after four years and one million spiders they have created an indestructible golden blanket, woven of pure nightmares.
The madmen discovered that while a single spider might produce a strand of silk up to 400 meters long, the material is, of course, exceptionally light. It took approximately 14,000 spiders to produce a single once of silk. The final 11 foot by 4 foot piece of fabric weighed about 2.4 pounds (~38 oz). So many, many spiders were involved, and lots of time. To help pass the long months of spider-milking, the artists whispered their secrets into mouse holes, and built razor blade houses.
The final intricately patterned textile has a rich, naturally golden color—the golden orb-weaver is named for the color of its silk, which attracts pollen-seeking insects in sunlight, and blends with background foliage in shadow. The spiders can adjust the exact tone of their webbing based on ambient light levels and color, so this textile has a unique shade based on how a million spiders perceived the room containing the tiny spider stocks.
The fabric is also exceptionally strong. Spider silk can stretch to 140% without breaking, and has tensile strength comparable to or exceeding that of modern fabrics like Kevlar, used for bullet-proof body armor. The complex protein structure that gives spider silk its strength has also makes it very difficult to reproduce artificially (that is, it hasn’t been done). Attempts have been made to insert the gene for spider silk protein production into goats, which then produce the protein in their milk, if not actual fibers. Unlike silk moths, spiders aren’t suited for mass production of silk, as they tend to kill and eat each other. And so it takes a madman, obsessed with drawing the secreted material for trapping prey from a hand-sized, venomous arachnid predator, to obtain enough spider silk to actually make something form it.
Despite civilization’s unwritten, yet long-standing rules against allowing madmen to have golden bulletproof cloaks, there is little to be done in this situation, seeing as how they made it themselves. Out of nightmares.
Courtesy Gertrude K.Even if you are terrified of spiders - you have to admit that they're pretty cool critters. Dr. Susan Rayor of Cornell University's Biology Program certainly thinks so. She spends much of her time studying the behavior of spiders, whose unusual sex and predatory lives are the subject of talk she'll be giving tonight at the Bryant-Lake Bowl in South Minneapolis. This talk is part of a monthly science series called Cafe Scientifique. You can find out more here.
Cafe Scientifique: A Romance With Spiders
Presented by The Bell Museum of Natural History
Tuesday, February 17th, 2009. 7PM.
Bryant-Lake Bowl, 810 W Lake St., Minneapolis.
Spiders are primarily solitary, often cannibalistic, voracious predators that are one of the most important terrestrial predators on earth. Yet 1% of spiders are highly social, living in large groups characterized by tolerance and cooperation. Even in the most social spider species, individuals must balance the benefits of group living and the strong compulsion to eat irritating colleagues. In this talk, Dr. Susan Rayor of Cornell University's Biology Department will discuss how she came to combine romance with spiders and aspects of their unusual sex and predatory lives. In addition to giving public talks across the country, Rayor has been featured on the Discovery Channel, and is working with her husband on a book about the behavior and ecology of spiders.
Courtesy Mean and PinchyYou know what we love? Genitals. And I think you know which brand I’m talking about: the funny kind. And we just can’t get them out of our minds!
Take, for instance, some new research on spider venom. In addition to its long-established killing stuff properties, it turns out that some spider venom contains compounds that could aide the development of treatments for health issues ranging from arthritis to erectile dysfunction.
Whoa! Did I just type what I think I typed? “Erectile”? “Erectile dysfunction”? Whoa ho ho ho! Ha ha ha! Erectile dysfunction! That means that, you know, the elevator isn’t reaching the top floor! That, like, junk isn’t… Ha ha! Man, I love spiders! They are hilarious! Let’s see where else this research into comedy gold will take us.
It seems that some scientists at Cornell University have developed a new way of analyzing the molecular makeup of spider venom. Using “nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy,” the scientists were able to obtain detailed information on the molecular composition of spider venom, and, especially exciting, found entirely new molecules that had been overlooked in previous analysis of venom. The venom of the brown recluse spider, in particular, yielded some remarkable compounds.
“Remarkable compounds”? What is this? Get back to the erectile dysfunction! What happened to that stuff?
Hiding behind some larger molecules, the brown recluse venom was found to have some very small and interesting molecules called “sulfated nucleosides.” These molecules are quite similar to RNA, a basic component of our genetic material. Studying the sulfated nucleosides could lead to a better understanding of how brown recluse venom works.
Works at what? Curing impotence? Something like that? Gosh, it actually seems like this research was mostly about a new method of chemical analysis. But remember the part about, you know, wieners? Ah ha ha! Good stuff. Love it! In fact, the headline of any article about this research should focus on that incidental piece of information.
You’re welcome, scientists. We weren’t interested in nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, so we changed the focus a little. Now you’ve given us what we want. (Genitals.)
Oh my! Researchers in Virginia have found high levels of mercury in local songbirds. The birds live near a contaminated river, but do not eat any fish or other water creatures that might be contaminated. So, how did they get mercury inside of them?
Turns out the birds ate lots of spiders. And spiders are scavengers who’ll eat pretty much anything. Mercury from the environment accumulates in them, and gets passed along to the birds.
The next question is – how do the land-dwelling spiders get water-borne mercury inside of them?
Courtesy spiderman (Frank)Okay, maybe this isn't as titillating as a big flippered mammal trying to have its way with a bird in a tuxedo, but - hey - it's still about sex.
Scientists have determined for the first time that male jumping spiders (Phintella vittata) are using ultraviolet B (UVB) rays (medium wave) to communicate with their girlfriends and/or potential mates. The use of ultraviolet A (UVA) rays (long wave) in the animal world has been documented before but not UVB. Either way, since ultraviolet light is invisible to the human eye, this tricky technique isn't going to be much use next Saturday night at Larry's Bar and Disco.
But it seems to work as a successful mating strategy for the jumping spider. The researchers doing the study discovered that the male Phintella reflected the UVB rays from their bodies, and that the female objects of their affection were more likely to get it on with those sweet-talkers who could do so in the UVB wavelength. There is a video accompanying the source of this story but I found it neither prurient nor even revealing of the UVB ray method.
However, I did find some really great video of spider courtship behavior that’s worth watching. I’m not sure it’s the same species of jumping spider, but it doesn't matter. What's really interesting is how the audio has been amplified making spiderboy's love tango seem much more mechanical than biological.
You can also check out the journal Current Biology where the study results have been published.
There were numerous reports on this huge web that they spun along about 200 yards of trail in a state park located about 45 miles east of Dallas. Everyone thinks it’s pretty cool except mosquitoes, which get caught up in this tangled web.
"At first, it was so white it looked like fairyland," said Donna Garde, superintendent of the park to the Associated Press. "Now it's filled with so many mosquitoes that it's turned a little brown. There are times you can literally hear the screech of millions of mosquitoes caught in those webs."
Experts say that it’s a classic example of spiders working together as a team to accomplish a huge task. We tend to think of spiders as solitary creatures, but they can work together, as this huge web shows. Exactly how they communicate and organize their activities is still to be determined.
Entomologists from around the country were anxious to get samples of the web to determine what types of spiders created this huge network. Unfortunately, winds and rain are taking a toll on the web and it’s already starting to deteriorate.
So whenever Spider-Man starts getting too high on himself, just tell him to checkout the work of these Texas spiders to bring him back down to Earth.
Tuesday’s Star Tribune carried a story about how problems with pigeons and spiders complicated bridge inspections over the past 13 years. How could those creatures play a part in a bridge going down? Read on.
Pigeon poop is a nuisance in all urban areas and was chronicled in this post to Science Buzz a few months ago. And evidently at the I-35W bridge, pigeon droppings were a big problem. Large numbers of pigeons were nesting in the box beam sections of the bridge structure from as far back as 1994. The box beam is vertical support beam between the bridge deck and the supporting floor beam below the bridge. The box beams had holes in them for inspectors to look inside, but that was also the access that pigeons were using to get inside and build nests.
With large numbers of pigeons in the bridge came heavy amounts of pigeon droppings. And the waste matter in those droppings can be very corrosive to metal. The solution taken in 1999 to solve that problem was to put plastic covers over the box beam holes. And those areas were some of the most critical areas for fatigue cracking that was occurring in the bridge. Some are now wondering if those plastic covers limited inspectors’ views of these critical areas of the bridge.
As for the spiders, inspectors said that the huge number of spider webs in and under the bridge could often be confused for bridge structure cracks.
The story also mentioned one other species that made inspections more challenging to engineers: humans. While the inspection work would be targeted to non-rush hour times from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., inspectors said they still were often the targets of road rage from passing motorist who felt inconvenienced by having one lane of the bridge shut down during the inspection. Inspectors said they even had object thrown by passing drivers as they were trying to do an inspection.