Spiders might be the most unpleasant-looking creatures on the face of the Earth, but you have to respect their engineering prowess. Spider webs are incredibly intricate, and they’re made from one of the most amazing materials in the animal kingdom: spider silk. Gram for gram, spider silk is stronger than steel, and way more pliable.
Spiders store the precursors of their silk as proteins called spidroins, which have the consistency of a gel. And scientists from Sweden have recently learned how spiders turn this gel into the solid form of silk: as the gel moves through the spider’s silk-making gland, the spiders use carbonic anhydrase to set up a steady pH gradient from 7.6 to 5.7. (The carbonic anhydrase converts water and carbon dioxide to hydrogen and bicarbonate ions.) This acidic change triggers chemical changes in the spidroins that lend themselves to the formation of tough spider-silk fibers.
(The scientists figured this stuff out by inserting microelectrodes into the spider’s glands, which are only three-hundredths of an inch across.)
This research may sound trivial, but it has major implications. If we can figure out how to produce spider silk cheaply and en masse, it could literally change the world. Materials science is a fascinating field, and new materials often have profound effects on human society (e.g., plastic). According to one researcher, “If we could produce large amounts at a low price, there’s no limit to what it could be used for.”
With a material that strong and that flexible, the sky may be the limit. This research brings us a step closer to understanding exactly how spiders do it, and, by implication, how we could do it too.
But if you’ve got Nassau spiders, give us a call. We won’t study how they make silk, we’ll just get them out of your hair so you can rest easy.