Using a microscope and tweezers, Cheryl Hayashi dissects a silver garden spider. She’s hunting for tiny web-making glands. It’s a delicate operation. One day, these organs could reveal the secrets of the miracle that is spider silk.
All spider silks start out the same—as a wad of goo, similar to thick honey. A spider stashes the goo in a gland until it wants to use it. Then a narrow nozzle opens. The goo flows out and morphs into a solid strand that the spider weaves with other strands from other glands.
Hayashi has collected glands from about 50 spider species. Each gland produces a different type of silk. Some are stretchy, others stiff. Some dissolve in water. Others repel it.
“They make so many kinds of silk!” says Hayashi of the eight-legged creatures. “That’s just what boggles my mind.”
Orb-weaving spiders alone make seven types of silk. One has a sticky glue to catch prey. Another is tough but stretchy enough to absorb insect crash landings. The orb-weaver dangles from a third type that’s as tough as steel.
How and why different silks have different features is a mystery that God alone understands. Scientists believe the secret lies in the genes.
God’s creation is remarkable and vast. There are more than 48,000 known spider species, nearly nine million animal species, and billions upon billions of stars. Then consider plants and viruses and people . . . Thinking on God’s works, we may well ask Him with the psalmist, “What is man that you are mindful of him, and . . . that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:4)
Hayashi has been studying spider silk for 20 years. Her lab at the American Museum of Natural History is analyzing the genes behind gossamer threads. She is creating a kind of “silk library.”
The library will help scientists learn how spiders make multiple kinds of silk and how each kind performs. The information could help others develop new pesticides, bullet-proof vests, space gear—even fashion fabrics.
“Any function that we can think of where you need something that requires a lightweight material that’s very strong—you can look to spider silk,” Hayashi says.
While Hayashi studies the silk, researcher Sarah Stellwagen works to re-create it. Scientists have been able to make a small amount of material that perfectly mimics one type of silk from one species. But there are thousands of other types. Plus, she says, lab-built silk is simply “not as good as what a spider makes.” At least, not yet.