Foot Silk: Probably the Last Volley

May 29, 2013

Tags: silk, tarantulas, Foelix, Erb, Rast

Remember the controversy over whether tarantula feet produce silk? We posted a summary of the back and forth here last year. Rainer Foelix, Bruno Erb, and Bastian Rast have now published transmission electron micrographs that refute the foot-silk claim in Arthropod Structure and Development. Although the article is behind a paywall, you can look at their figures for free, and it's hard not to be struck with wonder at the complexity of some of these tiny structures.

At Last: Mesothele Silk

September 28, 2012

Tags: Mesothelae, Liphistius, Mygalomorphae, Hypochilus, Latrodectus, silk, proteins, evolution, Starrett, Garb, Kuelbs, Azubuike, Hayashi

I’ve been waiting for years to learn something about mesothele silk genes and silk proteins. The 90 or so species of mesothele make up the oldest surviving spider lineage. They now live only in Southeast Asia. As we explain in Spider Silk, mesotheles are sometimes considered living fossils (a term biologists don’t like nowadays; it gives the false impression that the organism hasn’t evolved at all since some distant point in the past) because they display characteristics so similar to the characteristics found in a 290-million-year-old fossil mesothele and so dissimilar from more “modern” spiders. For one thing, unlike other spiders, their abdomens are segmented, an outward display of spiders’ descent from segmented ancestors. If we want a full picture of spider silk evolution, mesothele silk genes and proteins are an obvious place to focus.

James Starrett, Jessica Garb, Amanda Kuelbs, Ugochi Azubuike, and Cheryl Hayashi have, for the first time, looked at the sequence of mesothele silk proteins by synthesizing cDNAs from the silk glands of Liphistius malayanus, a mesothele. They also looked at the sequences of silk proteins of six species of mygalomorph spider—these are the spiders in the second major spider lineage, which includes the tarantulas.

Neither mesotheles nor mygalomorphs spin the kinds of webs most non-arachnologists think of when we think “web.” They are incapable, for example, of spinning the kind of silk araneomorph spiders (the third major lineage) use as dragline or rapelling rope. (This largely accounts for silk researchers’ relative neglect of mesotheles and mygalomorphs: there’s no obvious industrial or other money-making application of this research). Instead, these spiders use silk to create linings for their burrows, or above-ground tubes such as pursewebs, or sheets that spread away from the spider’s hiding place to create a prey detector.

The research team also looked at the sequence of silk proteins produced by Hypochilus thorelli, a lampshade spider, one of the earliest-evolved still-surviving araneomorph spiders. Unlike the mesotheles and mygalomorphs, Hypochilus produces different kinds of silk strands specialized for different tasks. The researchers state that the motive for their study is the belief that “characterizing silk transcripts in mesotheles, mygalomorphs, and a basal araneomorph lineage allows for a better understanding of the evolutionary transition from substrate-borne, general-use silk fibers to aerial webs with task specific fibers spun by orb-weavers.” In other words, ancient spiders may have produced multiple silk proteins, but they seem to have used them interchangeably. Later in spider evolution, spiders use specific silks for specific jobs. Can silk protein sequences tell us how spiders got from there to here?

Previous to this research, two different classes of silk protein had been identified: spidroins, or spider fibroins, which make up the bulk of spider silk fibers, and egg case proteins (ECPs). ECPs were identified only in 2005 (whereas spidroins have been studied for decades) and only in Latrodectus hesperus, the Western black widow. (Given how few spider families have been sampled, though, it’s quite possible other spiders also produce them.)

Back in the early 1990s, Joachim Haupt and Jacqueline Kovoor conducted histology and histochemical studies on mesothele silk glands that showed that these spiders produced more than one kind of fibrous protein. What makes Starrett’s team’s findings so interesting is not just that they confirm Haupt and Kovoor’s study, but also that they found such a large variety of recognizable silk proteins in the mesothele: a spidroin plus six ECP-like proteins.

This appears to confirm the hypothesis that spidroins evolved very early in spider evolutionary history. Arachnologists have long assumed that the “original” spider produced just one spidroin, and that the genes scripting later-evolved spidroins probably evolved from the gene scripting that original spidroin. This study found just one spidroin in a mesothele, which makes that assumption seem more likely.

At the same time, the presence of the ECP-like proteins in addition to the spidroin shows that silk proteins started to diversify quite early in spider evolutionary history. These mesothele ECP-like proteins, like the mesothele spidroin, contain little repetition compared to the araneomorph black widow ECPs. But the selection pressures on mesothele silks are quite different from the selection pressures on black widow silks. Mesotheles live underground in burrows, and their eggs are laid and covered in silk underground. Mesothele silk proteins may be selected to cope with dampness or dangers such as mold or interfacing with soil or underground predators and parasites, whereas black widow silks may be selected to cope with sunlight, aridity, attack by above-ground predators and parasites, and wind forces, among other challenges.

The big question is: Why did these silk proteins start to diversify in the first place? It’s possible that mesotheles are not quite so indiscriminate in their use of different silk proteins as we think. In black widows, the ECPs knit with a specialized spidroin called tubuliform silk to form egg casing. Neither mesotheles nor mygalomorphs produce tubuliform silk. The research team believes that, because both ECPs and the ECP-like proteins are rich in the amino acid cysteine, and because cysteine plays a role in the knitting together of black widow ECPs and tubiliform spidroin, the mesothele ECP-like proteins may knit with that spider’s spidroin. Does the mesothele tailor its protein mix to lay down, for example, an egg blanket versus a trap door?

That isn’t an easy question to answer. Araneomorphs’ specialized silks are produced in specialized glands, and they can be observed as they emerge from distinct spinnerets. Mesothele glands don’t seem much different from each other. And closely observing a mesothele laying down silk requires unusual dedication: they undertake housekeeping chores in the dark, stop when exposed to light, and also, unlike mygalomorphs and araneomorphs, their spinnerets are inconveniently (for observers, not for the spiders) placed under their abdomens instead of exposed out at the end. So whether he or she chooses dissection and RNA extraction or focused observation or both, some researcher is going to have to contract an obsession with this question before we get an answer.

It’s also possible that the early diversification of these proteins is related to the different amounts of energy required for their synthesis. Spiders not entirely dependent on any one protein in their heavy dependence on silk may have been able to weather fluctuations in prey capture more easily.

What is clear is that this early diversification of silk proteins shows once again that silk genes are evolvable; that is, they have a propensity for evolution—they can duplicate and change slightly but still be useful. Eventually, under the right circumstances, accumulated changes may result in proteins suited to specific tasks.

The research team’s analysis of the mesothele spidroin, the newly found mygalomorph spidroins, the newly found Hypochilus spidroin, and previously known spidroins supports this scenario. They believe that their analysis shows that the common ancestor of the opisthotheles (the combined mygalomorphs and araneomorphs) had a minimum of five related spidroin genes, meaning that this gene duplication occurred before the mygalomorphs and araneomorphs went their separate ways. Mygalomorphs, like mesotheles, have pretty uniform silk glands. So this would mean that spidroins diversified before glands evolved to be specialized.

ECPs and ECP-like silk proteins are probably also much more diverse—it strains belief that they are produced only by mesotheles and black widows, which are pretty distant relatives. It’s much more likely that, due to the way the cDNA synthesis process works, it’s possible the team sampled their mygalomorph and Hypochilus specimens at a time when the genes scripting ECP-likes or ECPs weren’t being expressed. We’ll only know for sure when genome sequences—rather than just cDNA sequences—are available for various spiders. Then we’ll also be able to see what, if any, evolutionary connections there are between ECPs and spidroins.

Besides these basic findings, this study found a number of other interesting details that should be of interest to silk specialists. And like all good research, it points the way to a number of further research questions, which the authors point out: We know that the number of repeats has an influence on silk fiber formation and mechanical properties, but what influence does the length of repeats have? Do the silks of different mygalomorphs have different mechanical properties, and how are those properties related to the molecular architecture of their silk proteins? And finally, once the mechanical properties and functional properties of mesothele and different mygalomorph silks are understood, how have those properties been influenced by the natural selection pressures exerted by life underground?

Once you get tangled up in spider silk research, there’s really no end to its fascination.

Foot Silk Redux: Nope

April 28, 2012

Tags: silk, tarantulas, Perez-Miles, Ortiz-Villatoro

In what looks to be the last word on the tarantula foot-silk controversy, Fernando Perez-Miles and David Ortiz-Villatoro take a firm stand with the title of their new paper in the Journal of Experimental Biology: "Tarantulas do not shoot silk from their legs." In our last post, we outlined why Rainer Foelix and his team contend that the supposed silk spigots described by research teams supporting the pro-foot-silk position are most likely chemoreceptor hairs. Now, Perez-Miles and Ortiz-Villatoro also dispute the earlier findings of foot-silk; they contend that the silk those researchers found is actually spinneret silk.

Back in 2009, Perez-Miles, Ortiz-Villatoro and two other colleagues challenged the original claim that the zebra tarantula produces foot silk, reporting that when they sealed the tarantula's spinnerets with paraffin before having it cling to vertical pieces of glass, they couldn't find any silk. When yet another team of researchers claimed to have found foot-silk left behind on glass by four different kinds of tarantula, they suggested that the Perez-Miles team might not have shaken the glass enough. In other words, maybe the spiders didn't feel the need to produce foot silk.

Now, Perez-Miles and Ortiz-Villatoro have more closely repeated the procedure of previous foot-silk finders, with four tarantula species. When they left the spinnerets unsealed, they found silk threads in the "footprints" left behind on the glass. When they sealed the spinnerets, they found none. Their conclusion: the footprints became contaminated with spinneret silk, which easily travels from spinneret to leg because it's so light.

In combination with the facts that no one can find silk glands in the spiders' feet and that the "spigots" have more in common with chemoreceptors than with spinneret spigots, this latest piece of research makes it seem highly unlikely that anyone will find spiders whose feet produce silk.

Foot Silk: True or False?

March 10, 2012

Tags: silk, tarantulas, Foelix, Rast, Peattie, Mesothelae

Last summer, a team of researchers reported they had indeed found that tarantulas secrete silk from their feet. This appeared to settle a controversy that had started in 2006 when a different team reported finding foot silk. The original finding was bound to be controversial: no one had ever before observed the secretion of silk from the feet of any kind of spider. In 2009, a team investigating the first claim couldn't find evidence of foot silk. Last summer's report, which included a micrograph that seemed to show a blob of silk protein forming at the tip of a purported foot silk spigot, appeared to validate the 2006 report. (For a discussion of these three reports and of the questions concerning silk evolution they raise, see this earlier Spider Silk blog post.)

Well, there is now more evidence that tarantulas actually DON'T produce foot silk. Rainer Foelix is a leading spider anatomist and author of the must-have Biology of Spiders. When he examined the micrographs included in last summer's report, the alleged foot silk spigots looked like chemoreceptor hairs he had studied intensively in the 1970s. Kathryn Knight summarizes what Foelix did next. He, Bastian Rast, and Anne M. Peattie report their full findings in the April 1, 2012, issue of the Journal of Experimental Biology.

Foelix, Rast, and Peattie explicity address the questions concerning silk evolution that these earlier studies raised for us. They note that--even if the silk allegedly secreted through the foot "spigots" really is silk--all the tarantulas tested tend to stay close to the ground. It's not clear, then, what survival advantage foot silk would give them, particularly when the tiny amounts produced would add little cling compared to the spiders' already clingy adhesive setae, or hairs.

Most interesting to us, the team compared the feet of the tarantulas in their study to the feet of Liphistius desultor, a mesothele. As readers of Spider Silk know, mesotheles make up the oldest extant branch of the spider family tree. They live in burrows, rarely venturing more than a few inches beyond the burrow's trap door. Foelix, Rast, and Peattie state that Liphistius has no adhesive hairs on its feet. But it does have the same hairs that earlier researchers identified as silk spigots but that Foelix et al. are pretty convinced are chemoreceptors. The tiny amounts of "silk" produced from the hairs in question wouldn't allow the mesotheles to climb, even if they wanted to.

Next step in deciding whether the hairs in question on tarantula feet are silk spigots or chemoreceptors: testing them for sensory innervation with transmission electron micrography. Down the road, we wonder whether anyone will find any evolutionary connection at all--given the evolutionary relationship between limbs and spinnerets--between the proteinaceous fluid that apparently oozes from these hairs (which are also found on the spinnerets and all extremities) and the protein silk that is secreted through spinneret spigots.

As usual, the best research leads to more questions.


February 8, 2012

Tags: silk, Coddington

A neat little video from a couple of years ago that we somehow missed. Jonathan Coddington is one of the world's foremost arachnologists, and here he explains how photography gives today's araneologists an advantage over araneologists of the past. One quibble: Despite what Jonathan says, flying insects often do see webs. Why they still fly into them is a big research question we discuss in Chapter 10 of Spider Silk, "Now You See It, Now You Don't." Thanks to Bug Girl for bringing this video to our attention.

Silkworms and Spider Genes

January 3, 2012

Tags: silk, Yong

If you don't already follow Ed Yong's great Not Exactly Rocket Science, you've been missing some of the best science blogging around. Check out his latest post, on research involving the insertion of spider silk genes into the genome of silkworms. These silkworms produced silk that's an improvement (in human terms; silkworm silk works just fine for silkworms) over normal silkworm silk, but not really up to spider dragline silk standards. There are all sorts of possible reasons for this result; I give some of them in the comments section below the post.


December 9, 2011

Tags: silk, protein structure, music, Giesa, Spivak, Buehler

Silk was one of the first fibrous proteins to be investigated in the early 20th century. Spider silk's exceptional properties have long inspired researchers from fields ranging from mechanical engineering to biotech. Now three MIT researchers from the Departments of Mathematics and Civil and Environmental Engineering have used a new concept called ontology logs, from the category theory branch of mathematics, to examine the relationship between spider silk's structure and function.

The really different aspect of this research? They conducted their examination by comparing spider silk and classical music. And they present their findings as a demonstration of a new way of gaining insight into various structures built on smaller and smaller substructures. Read more at MITnews.

The original paper, by Tristan Giesa, David I. Spivak, and Markus J. Buehler, is published in BioNanoScience.

Feet and Glue

October 7, 2011

Tags: silk, evolution, Theraphosidae, Rind, Gorb, Aphonopelma, Perez-Miles, Grammostola, Brachypelma, Peattie, Sahni, Latrodectus

[This post contains later amendments that may be instructive to other science writers. See the later posts on purported tarantula foot silk to see why.]

Three papers published this summer might at first seem unrelated. But read together, they pull the entire arc of spider silk evolution into sharper focus. Two papers indirectly address the evolutionary origins of spider silk production. The other demonstrates that the evolution of silk proteins has been central to spider evolution even after the extraordinary proliferation of silks that made the vertical orb web possible.

First, F. Claire Rind and colleagues reported that at least some tarantulas (which belong to the family Theraphosidae) do indeed secrete silk from their feet. This report appears to settle a controversy that first broke out in 2006, when a team of researchers led by Stanislav Gorb announced that they had persuaded a Costa Rica zebra tarantula, Aphonopelma seemanni, to walk on a nearly vertical surface covered with glass microscope slides. The researchers claimed that as the tarantula started to slip, it left behind “footprints” made up of miniscule silk fibers. If this observation held true, it could have important implications concerning the origin of spider silk production. Like all spiders, tarantulas secrete silk through abdominal spinnerets, small appendages ending in multiple spigots that are the outlets for the abdominal silk glands. Genetic studies have shown that spider spinnerets are the evolutionary descendants of the gill branches of ancient arthropod limbs. If spiders secreted silk from their limbs as well as through their spinnerets, this fact might not only cement the limb-spinneret connection but also suggest new hypotheses for the earliest origins and survival value of spider silk.

The Gorb report left some questions open, however. (more…)


September 4, 2011

Tags: Argiope, silk

Here are links to two interesting blog posts about spiders likely to be encountered in many parts of the US at this time of year:

Bill Hilton, Jr., writes about a variety of spiders and their webs at This Week at Hilton Pond in a post titled "Spiders of August: The Case for Arachnophilia."

Bug Eric writes about Argiope aurantia. Eric writes about spiders most Sundays.

Breathing, Underwater

June 14, 2011

Tags: Argyroneta, silk

A fascinating new study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology has found that the silk diving bell of the European water spider, Argyroneta aquatica, is more than just a bubble-holding net: it actually functions like a gill, drawing oxygen from the surrounding water.

You can watch a water spider in action here. Notice how it pops its abdomen above the water surface to gather more air to drag back to the diving bell.

Angleless Angling

June 9, 2011

Tags: Nephila, silk

People and other animals have always adapted spider silk to their own purposes. Here's a spectacular piece of footage from Jeremy Wade's Animal Planet "River Monsters" series showing a skillful South Pacific fisherman using Nephila, or golden orb weaver, silk as an all-in-one tool. Notice the golden hue of the silk, and just how stuck into the tangled silk the fish gets. I wonder whether the aggregate silk protein glue that lies along the web's capture spiral survives its swish through the salt water and that's what the fish sticks to, or whether the fish simply gets major ampullate and flagelliform silk wound around its teeth. Thanks to Green Matter for the tip.


June 8, 2011

Tags: ballooning, silk

Here's a report of gossamer masses startling people living in the Macedon Ranges shire of Victoria, Australia. The ability of young spiders to balloon is made possible by super-strong major ampullate silk, the silk araneomorph spiders use to rappel and to construct the strongest lines of their webs. Jumping spiders use it as their safety line. You can read more about ballooning in Chapter Five of Spider Silk, "Triumph Over Thin Air." One of my life's goals is to witness such a mass gossamer waft.


April 4, 2011

Tags: silk, hummingbirds

If you're not already one of the two-million-plus viewers of Hummingbird Cam, check it out soon to catch the current chicks before they fly the nest. Don't fret if you miss them, because the mother will soon lay another clutch of two eggs if she sticks to her pattern of previous years.

But whether the nest is full or empty, take a close look at it. The mother hummingbird has bound all her building materials together with spider silk. Spider silk offers this mother the perfect combination of strength and flexibility: the nest actually stretches with the growth of the chicks.

Hummingbirds aren't the only birds to use spider silk in nest building. I haven't been able to find any research on whether birds are picky about the kinds of spider webs they choose to filch. Do they prefer araneoid webs, with their super-stretchy flagelliform catching lines and aggregate protein glue? Or non-araneoid araneomorph webs, with their dry cribellate catching silk? Do different birds prefer different kinds of silk? If you know of any research pointing to answers, please let me know.

Model Silk

March 3, 2011

Tags: silk

Part of the reason it's so difficult to create synthetic spider silk is that we still don't know exactly why natural spider silk is so strong, stretchy, or tough. We have a general understanding: certain arrangements of silk protein molecules give rise to these various properties. But we're still trying to figure out exactly what's going on at the scale of the atoms making up these molecules. We know that silk fibers are made up of both crystalline subunits, in which the molecules interlock in very organized and repetitive patterns that give rise to strength, and "amorphous" subunits, in which the molecules are relatively disordered. The amorphous subunits lend the fiber the ability to deform, which allows it to stretch or absorb impact. Still mysterious is exactly how these subunits arrange themselves and connect within the total unit of a silk fiber. After all, to know this we would have to be able to view the atoms within the fiber molecules directly. We can currently view them only indirectly, using technologies such as x-ray crystallography.

But researchers can use existing knowledge of silk protein structure to build and test models of how these atoms might link together. After playing with different proportions and arrangements of the two types of subunit, a team of researchers from Germany and China have proposed a new model that they believe could help in the design of synthetic spider silk. Even if you're an English major (like me), if you've read Spider Silk, you can skim this paper and get the gist of it. If you want a precis, you can read this article from Deutsche Welle, which ends with a much-appreciated plug for arachnology. But like so many articles on spider silk research, this one, too, is mistitled: although this research offers a promising approach to synthesizing a fiber like spider silk, we still haven't untangled all the secrets of real spider silk.

David Pogue on Spider Silk's Strength Follow-Up

January 20, 2011

Tags: silk, Pogue, Lewis

Here's an excerpt of David Pogue's Making Stuff: Stronger episode, taken from the PBS News Hour:

Later in the episode, Randy Lewis gives a nifty explanation of dragline silk protein's strength using Legos, springs, and zippers. If you want to learn more about how such an extraordinary material has evolved, read Chapter 6 in Spider Silk. And if you get a chance to catch the whole episode in future, it's well worth your time.

David Pogue on Spider Silk's Strength

January 18, 2011

Tags: silk, Pogue, Lewis

CBS News has a preview of David Pogue's spider silk segment on his new Nova: Making Stuff series on PBS. This should be fun. I'm interested to see whether Randy Lewis or any other spider silk experts get a chance to explain why copying spiders' ability to make silk in the quantities we desire is so difficult.

Spider Silk Cited

November 12, 2010

Tags: spider mites, silk

Milestone: An academic paper has cited Spider Silk. We wrote Spider Silk for nonscientists, and it's been gratifying to receive reviews praising our book as "conversational," "easy to read," and "difficult to put down." But it's also great to know that other biologists recognize the validity of the science supporting our narrative. Although spiders make and use silk in unique ways, many other arthropods also use silk for various purposes. Miki Kanazawa, Ken Sahara, and Yutaka Saito of Hokkaido University in Japan have discovered that female Stigmaeopsis longus, a species of social spider mites, use silk threads to clean their communal nests. If you're interested in what it might be like to live in a highly humid, capsule-like nest with tens of others of your kind, the eye-opening introduction to their paper gives a glimpse of some of the grittier aspects. But of course, if you were this self-regarding co-author, the true frisson would kick in at footnote #27.


October 28, 2010

Tags: assassin bug, silk, Wignall, Taylor

A new paper on how assassin bugs play on the web strings of spiders to lure them to their untimely end got a lot of publicity this week for good reason: "aggressive mimicry," in which a predator imitates something (for example, prey or a potential mate) that its prey is instinctively primed to approach, is intriguing on a number of counts. The paper, by Anne Wignall and Phillip Taylor of Macquarie University in Australia, details experiments they conducted to discover how the araneophagic Stenolemus bituberus tricks spiders into coming along the web to have a closer look. Mark Kinver at the BBC, Duncan Geere at Wired Science, and Jennifer Viegas at Discovery News all have good summaries.

But these summaries all focus on the assassin bug and its remarkably skillful underhandedness. I can't help but focus on the spider. (more…)

Tough Genetic Stuff

October 18, 2010

Tags: genetics, protein structure, silk, Latrodectus, Zhao, Ayoub, Hayashi

Genetics papers can be pretty impenetrable to us non-geneticists. But geneticists don't write the way they do just so they'll be perceived as eggheads.

It took me, an English major with not much science background beyond high school courses, many months to learn how to decipher the genetics papers that inform Spider Silk. Of course, I was lucky enough to have Cay Craig guide me through these papers and steer me back on track when I veered astray. During this process, I came to realize that genes and genetic research is even more complicated than most of us non-biologists realize. For many of us, it's a mystery why news reports about exciting discoveries in genetics don't lead rapidly to successful medical or other practical applications.

I now get that it's no mystery, or conspiracy. This longer-than-usual post is an attempt to walk through an intriguing paper by a genetics team that writes unusually clearly. Even so, the paper is shot through with terms such as "paralog," "diploid," "retroposition," and "fluorescence in situ hybridization." These terms immediately convey images and lines of logic to other geneticists but gaping black holes to the rest of us. I'm going to avoid such terms as much as possible as I walk through the paper. But I think you'll still see how many interlocking and complex concepts and techniques evolutionary geneticists have to wrestle with, and why even dazzling genetics papers usually lead to more papers rather than to immediate, dramatic applications. (more…)

Bronze Silk

July 23, 2010

Tags: Madagascar, silk, CPALI, Craig

We recently wrote about golden spider silk woven into a traditional Malagasy tapestry. Spider Silk co-author Cay Craig is just back from Madagascar, where she spearheads the Conservation through Poverty Alleviation project, known as CPALI for short. And she's brought lengths of a brand new kind of Malagasy textile made from bronze-colored native silk moth silk.

It's impossible not to pun that silk has threaded together various places, projects, and insights over the past 30 years of Cay's life. Cay first knew she wanted to make field research her life's work when she spent time as an undergraduate in Stanford's Human Biology program working with Jane Goodall at Gombe in Tanzania. Working later in Costa Rica, she realized that spiders and their silks would allow her not only to combine field research with her more recent interest in evolution but also to conduct experiments that would be impossible with larger or more mobile animals. And so her career as an arachnologist and eventual authority on silks and silk proteins began.

Visiting Gombe in 2002, Cay was devastated by the intervening damage to the forests surrounding the national park. She believed local people often had no option but to rip into the forests surrounding their villages in order to gain cropland or firewood. If there was some way to provide them an economic incentive to plant rather than cut down trees, she figured, they might gain a little more control over their economic situation and revitalize the buffer forest around the park at the same time.

That's what CPALI is doing at the edges of the Makira Protected Area in Madagascar – home of the silky sifaka and also site of some of the worst illegal rosewood harvesting. The latest tangible result is a length of bronze-colored, diaphanous textile created by sewing together hundreds of ironed-flat silk moth cocoons.

With the light shining through it, this textile is otherworldly and yet earthy, seeming simultaneously mineral and animal. A number of designers are interested in its possible use in wall coverings, lampshades, and window treatments. As sales increase, more farmers can join CPALI and additional forest loss to slash and burn agriculture avoided.

Golden Silk

July 6, 2010

Tags: Nephila, silk, Madagascar

We stopped in at the American Museum of Natural History in New York over the weekend to see the one-of-a-kind tapestry woven in Madagascar from the silk of Nephila madagascariensis, one of the golden orb weavers. Weaving was a highly developed art in Madagascar through the middle of the 20th century, and Europeans marveled at Malagasy creations in raffia, silk, and cotton, but especially silk. Malagasy royalty gave silk textiles to foreign leaders as they tried to establish or cement strategic alliances.

But that was silkworm silk. Weaving textiles from spider silk has never been practical, even in Madagascar, where giant golden orb weavers abound. When the tapestry was unveiled last autumn, The New York Times explained how Simon Peers, who has partnered with Malagasy weavers over the last two decades to revive their traditional art, put into play a plan to create the world's largest--and certainly most beautiful--piece of spider silk cloth. And the AMNH made a film, which you can see here. But if you can, get to the AMNH yourself to see this almost incredible piece of work. I dare you to keep your fingers off the case--they'll want to reach in and feel those wandering fringes where the silk looks still untamed.

Silk: From Liquid to Solid

June 14, 2010

Tags: silk, protein structure

A group of scientists in Norway and Sweden reported in the journal Nature last month that they've figured out something new about how spider silk self-assembles. Spider silk, which is a protein, starts out as liquid dope in spiders' silk glands. A protein molecule is a chain of amino acid molecules. As the amino acids up and down the chain interlock with each other in characteristic patterns, the liquid dope transforms into fibers.

The timing of this self-assembly is crucial. If it happened too soon, a spider would be left with balls of silk fiber clogging up its silk glands--useless. Why do the same molecules form a liquid in the glands but form fibers as they emerge from the spinnerets?

Like all proteins, silk protein molecules have two ends and a middle. One end is known as the C-terminus. The middle of silk protein molecules is made up of repeating sequences of amino acids that interlock to form the fiber. And the other end is known as the N-terminus. Silk scientists have known for a while that the C-terminus plays an important role in ensuring correct fiber self-assembly. The new report indicates that the N-terminus determines the timing of self-assembly.

As silk molecules move through the ducts leading from silk glands to spinnerets, they encounter gradually decreasing pH levels--that is, their surroundings become more acidic. The molecular structure of the N-terminus makes it sensitive to such a change, and it in turns influences how the middle, repeating segment of the silk molecule twists back and forth on itself. The researchers found that the N-terminus actually inhibits fiber formation in basic or neutral environments and hastens it at the levels of acidity found out in the spinnerets. So spider silk fibers self-assemble right on time.

One more example of how spider silk proteins may help us understand all sorts of other proteins.


"...a compelling introduction to evolution in action through the lens of spiders and their silks."

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