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Tough Genetic Stuff

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.  Read More 
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Gizmodo Likes Spider Silk

We're very excited that Gizmodo has chosen to post an excerpt from our chapter "Triumph over Thin Air." Check it out here.
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Operation Spider

Here's a very nice ad for Operation Spider, a Citizen Science Project sponsored by the University of South Australia.


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Giant Webs

Between reality TV and the 24-hour news cycle, it's hard to be surprised anymore by anything much humans do. Spiders, on the other hand, get up to all sorts of things that I doubt most of us would believe without documentary evidence. A case in point: In the newest issue of the always-interesting Journal of Arachnology (published by the American Arachnological Society), arachnologists Matjaz Kuntner and Ingi Agnarsson provide the first description of a remarkable species of spider from Madagascar. Even if you're not up to reading a whole paper like this, make sure to take a look at the extraordinary photographs included.

Kuntner and Agnarsson's newly described spider belongs to the little-studied genus Caerostris, commonly known as bark spiders because they often look like lumpy pieces of tree bark. They've named it C. darwini, or Darwin's bark spider, in honor of the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species.  Read More 
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Norwegian Webs

My family and I spent August visiting family in Liverpool (yes, that is where the Beatles came from) and then vacationing in Norway. Once you've discovered spider silk, your vacation snapshots are never quite the same. Norway is a wide-angle country. It's the rare photographer who can capture how high and deep the fjords feel, how scraped and lichen-splattered the mountain plateaus look, how the sky hangs at many levels at once. Anyone willing to sit through the post-trip slideshow quickly tires of hearing, "It was much steeper than that looks," and, "That's only a small slice of the view from there."

But Norway also exists on a different scale, and if my eyes hadn't been drawn to nooks and edges because I now detect spider silk everywhere, close-focus Norway might have escaped my notice. And so, a small selection of our travel pics (taken by Spider Silk's crack illustrator, Peter Loftus).



Bergen's funicular, the Floibanen, hauls tourists from the city center to the top of Mount Floyen. The fantastic views of the city and suburbs from on high are the main draw. But a short hike on the trails leading away from the viewing plaza revealed how easy it is for residents of Bergen to take a break from the city.  Read More 
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The Journal of Insect Conservation Likes Spider Silk

It's very exciting for writers when readers fully connect with their work. So it was a thrill to read the opening line of Tim R. New's review in the Journal of Insect Conservation. Check it out on our Press/Links page, please. Read More 
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Jump, Thump

All spiders make silk. For many spiders, silk is about building someplace to stay still. But for jumping spiders, it's about having the freedom to move around. Fast.

Jumping spiders make up the family Salticidae. This is the biggest spider family, numbering about 5,000 species. No matter where you live, you've probably come across a jumping spider one time or another in your home. They're usually compact, and because they're diurnal, you may find them traveling across the kitchen table or a windowsill or wall in broad daylight. (Also, it has to be said: magnified, they're quite quaint. There's something about those big, forward-facing eyes and fuzzy chelicerae that evoke King George V on a bad hair day.) Don't torment it, but it's really fun to nudge a jumping spider from behind and watch it spring away. Even more fun is to watch one jump perpendicularly away from a wall and then seemingly defy gravity as it lands back on the wall a few inches down.

You have to look closely to see the secret behind this daredeviltry. Salticids belong to the spider infraorder Araneomorphae, all of whose members produce major ampullate, or dragline silk. All araneomorphs can dangle on major ampullate silk threads. In fact, it's likely major ampullate silk evolved because stronger silk allowed more spiders to drop out of the way of danger. Salticids just took this innovation and leapt with it. This super-strong silk lets them recover from any jumps they might miss: it reels out from their spinnerets as a safety line as they travel through the air.

We're only beginning to understand how much we don't see and don't hear and otherwise don't sense what's going on in the miniature world of the jumping spiders. I was reminded again of how much sheer imagination and creativity are involved in experimentation--qualities often masked by the dry prose of scientific papers--when I recently came across this amazing PBS film about Damian Elias's research on jumping spider courtship. Enjoy:

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The Times and The Telegraph Like Spider Silk

We're really excited that a couple of top-notch reviewers in England have recommended Spider Silk to their readers. For more info, go to the Press/Links tab. But here are the short versions:

Simon Barnes, The Times, 3rd July 2010: "This is a fascinating and readable account of one of the great, overlooked mysteries of life."

Tibor Fischer, Sunday Telegraph, 11th July 2010: "The book is full of amusing facts and observations…Definitely for the general reader with a keen interest in natural history." Read More 
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Bronze Silk

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. Read More 
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Siting

We awoke as legends this morning.

My younger daughter calls me to the front door, which she had opened in order to retrieve the newspaper. Smack dab framed by the doorway, silk stretching from porch post to ceiling lamp to the pot of fuchsia hanging on the wall, is an orb web. Fantastically regular in layout, almost completely translucent in the shade of the porch. Its maker rests dead center on the hub. I'm not photographer enough to capture it for posterity. I'm not systematist enough to guarantee it's an Araneus diadematus, or garden spider, but I'm pretty sure. (And I discover later in the morning, as I run along threads through that other Web, that just such a spider starred in the Italian documentary short Epeira Diadema--Epeira being the genus name before Araneus supplanted it--made by Alberto Ancilotto and nominated for an Oscar in 1952.)

Webs strung across entrances have supposedly saved numerous influential personages over the centuries. David trying to get beyond the reach of King Saul, Mohammed fleeing Mecca, and Joseph and Mary trying to save Jesus from King Herod's soldiers--legend has it that in each of these cases and others a cave served as refuge. A spider then hung an orb web across the entrance. Passing enemies: "Don't bother looking in there. That spider wouldn't have had time to make that web." If said enemies had been more interested in arachnology, they would have known orb weaving usually takes only about an hour.

This morning, my daughter and I looked less than legendary as we limboed under the web to get to the street. But this start to the day was so nice that our tiny new resident may as well have posted TERRIFIC in 48-point aciniform type. Read More 
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