Soft as Silk: Spiders, Nature's Engineers

Of the 35,000 named spider species in the world, at least 900 of them are found in Texas (according to Texas A&M University.) Of those in our state, only two types, the black widow and brown recluse, are usually considered life threatening to humans.  While we often hear about their bites, let’s check out their other side.  

Did you know that there are seven different types of spider silk?  An individual spider may produce 3-4 different silk types depending on the species and whether it is male or female.  Unbelievably, some silk is stronger than a thread of steel at the same dimensions and tougher than the Kevlar used in bulletproof vests! Throughout history, people have used spider silk for everything from fishing line to sutures for stitches. During both World Wars, laboratories and private individuals helped collect silk from various spider species, including black widows. The collected silk was used in reticle crosshairs for sighting devices and other instruments.

Today scientists are looking at ways to recreate and harvest the proteins in silks for applications from making clothing to medical equipment and other life-protecting products.  One way they are creating more silk proteins is by adding the DNA from spider silk glands into the production of goat milk. While the milk produced may look and taste the same, it contains the proteins found in spider silk that can then be processed and spun into silk strands. Goats aren't the only species being tried as transgenic silk producers though. Everything from bacteria to yeast to alfalfa plants have been experimented with in order to try to obtain this "golden fleece" material.

Want to learn more about (and safely observe) a live black widow? Discover these spiders and a variety of other critters on display in the Moody Family Children’s Museum at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas.


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