Library of spider silk could hold secrets for new materials

Posted Wednesday, 14 August 2019 ‐ Las Vegas Sun

NEW YORK — With two pairs of fine-tipped tweezers and the hands of a surgeon, Cheryl Hayashi began dissecting the body of a silver garden spider under her microscope. In just a few minutes she found what she was seeking: hundreds of silk glands, the organs spiders use to make their webs. Some looked like mashed potatoes, others like green worms or air-filled rubber gloves. Each lets the spider produce a different type of silk. Some silk types can be stretchy, others stiff. Some dissolve in water, others repel it. "They make so many kinds of silk!" Hayashi said. "That's just what boggles my mind." Hayashi has collected spider silk glands of about 50 species, just a small dent in the more than 48,000 spider species known worldwide. Her lab at the American Museum of Natural History is uncovering the genes behind each type of silk to create a sort of "silk library." It's part of an effort to learn how spiders make so many kinds of silk and what allows each kind to behave differently. The library could become an important storehouse of information for designing new pesticides and better materials for bullet-proof vests, space gear, biodegradable fishing lines and even fashionable dresses. Hayashi has been at this for 20 years, but improved technology only recently let scientists analyze the DNA of silk faster and produce artificial spider silk in bulk. "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 said. Spider silks all start out the same: a wad of goo, akin to rubber cement or thick honey, as Hayashi describes it. Spiders make and stash it in a gland until they want to use the silk. Then, a narrow nozzle called a spigot opens. And as the goo flows out, it morphs into a solid silk strand that is weaved with other strands emerging from other spigots. Nobody knows how many kinds of spider silks exist, but some species can produce a variety. Orb-weaving spiders, for example, make seven types. One has a sticky glue to catch prey. Another is tough but stretchy to absorb the impact of flying insects. The spider dangles from a third type that's as tough as steel. How and why silks behave in these various ways is a puzzle, but the secret likely lies in genes. Finding those genes, though, isn't easy. Until recently, scientists had to first chop the glands' DNA into pieces and have a computer try to put the sequence back together like a jigsaw puzzle. That's a daunting task, and it's especially difficult for spiders, because their genes are very long and repetitive. It's as if the sentence "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" is instead, "The quick brown fox jumps, jumps, jumps, jumps, jumps, jumps, jumps, jumps over the lazy dog," said Sarah Stellwagen from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. If you have no idea what the sentence says and have to rebuild it from a shredded mess of thousands of copies, how do you know how many "jumps" to put into it? That's the problem Stellwagen faced when she recently determined the entire set of genes, and their DNA makeup, for spider silk glue. She'd thought she could do it fairly quickly, but it took almost two years. Scientists have to recover the full gene to truly mimic natural silk, she said. If they try to produce synthetic silk from just part of a gene or some lab-built stunted version, "it's not as good as what a spider makes," Stellwagen said. That's the issue researchers and companies have had in the past using genetically modified yeast, microbes and even goats to make synthetic silk. Only last year did a group make a small amount that perfectly mimicked an orb-weaving spider's dragline silk, the type it dangles from, using bacteria. But that was only one type of silk from one species. Hayashi asked: "What about the other 48,000?" Technology has improved. Researchers can now determine genes from beginning to end without first chopping them up. And companies have gotten ever closer to mass-produced synthetic silks. Now, it's a matter of uncovering the secrets of the potentially thousands of other silks out there. It's a hard task, considering the many spiders she has yet to study and that some are about the size of the period at the end of this sentence. "But hey, you know, we all have goals," she said. The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Other articles published by Las Vegas Sun

Population crisis could hamstring China’s rise Posted Friday, 24 January 2020 ‐ Las Vegas Sun

In recent days, both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have carried reports on one of the most important geopolitical facts of the 21st century: The world’s great rising power, the People’s Republic of China, is headed for a demographic...

Americans deserve to hear Trump testify Posted Friday, 24 January 2020 ‐ Las Vegas Sun

With Chief Justice John Roberts sworn in and every senator a duly sworn juror now considering the articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump, every American, regardless of political belief, must demand fairness, transparency and facts. The...

Posted Friday, 24 January 2020 ‐ Las Vegas Sun

Diane Southworth was raised by Republicans. Her life experiences led her in the opposite direction. “I think when I became a single parent, raised my daughters by myself, it made it more viable to be a Democrat,” said Southworth, a retired call...

Corruption is a red herring Posted Friday, 24 January 2020 ‐ Las Vegas Sun

If President Donald Trump actually was concerned about possible corruption connected to Hunter Biden’s position on the board of directors of Ukrainian gas company Burisma, why did he wait more than two years into his term to act on it? And then only...

Posted Friday, 24 January 2020 ‐ Las Vegas Sun

With a beloved residency returning to the House of Blues and a new one opening up at the Venetian, the forecast this weekend calls for a big block of rock on the Strip. Celebrate the music and explore these other entertainment options. FRANKIE...

These jurors are not impartial Posted Friday, 24 January 2020 ‐ Las Vegas Sun

I cannot help but wonder how Republican members of the Senate will be able to support the defense arguments after taking their oaths to be impartial witnesses in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. To do so, they will need to ignore...

Posted Friday, 24 January 2020 ‐ Las Vegas Sun

Hosea Hopkins fondly remembers the old 1964 Buick Wildcat his older sister bought him, especially the golden-brown car’s obnoxiously loud rattles. It was the perfect first car for the teenager who couldn’t afford a vehicle on his own. But Gloria Jean ...

Are my friends’ deaths their fault or ours? Posted Friday, 24 January 2020 ‐ Las Vegas Sun

When my wife and I wrote about my old schoolmates who had died from “deaths of despair,” the reaction was sometimes ugly. “They killed themselves,” scoffed Jonathan from St. Louis in the reader comments. “It was self-inflicted.” Ajax in...

Posted Friday, 24 January 2020 ‐ Las Vegas Sun

When Jim Murren arrived in Las Vegas in 1998, the thought of a gaming company like MGM Resorts International becoming a partner with an NFL team was unthinkable. The divide between sports leagues like the NFL and the gaming industry was wide. “It’s a ...

Posted Friday, 24 January 2020 ‐ Las Vegas Sun

FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. — NFL free agent Antonio Brown turned himself in at a Florida jail on Thursday night following accusations that he and his trainer attacked another man. Brown arrived at Broward County Jail around 10 p.m., as first reported by TMZ. ...

Posted Friday, 24 January 2020 ‐ Las Vegas Sun

DALLAS — A public service announcement honoring the life of a black man killed in his living room by a white Dallas police officer who said she mistook his apartment as her own debuted as part of an NFL initiative aiming to promote social justice and...

Posted Friday, 24 January 2020 ‐ Las Vegas Sun

MELBOURNE, Australia — Down to what sure felt like her last chance, Serena Williams came through with a cross-court forehand winner to close a 24-stroke point, then raised her arms, held that celebratory pose and looked over toward her guest box....

Posted Friday, 24 January 2020 ‐ Las Vegas Sun

Make like a 49er and start digging for gold; the Super Bowl proposition wagers are here. The point spread, total and even a smattering of a few props on the NFL championship game between the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers have been available...

McCarran not among U.S. airports screening for China coronavirus Posted Friday, 24 January 2020 ‐ Las Vegas Sun

McCarran International Airport is not among the U.S. airports where screening for the China coronavirus is taking place. “Entry screening” is being conducted in San Francisco, New York (JFK International), Los Angeles (LAX), Atlanta and Chicago...

Posted Thursday, 23 January 2020 ‐ Las Vegas Sun

Just 10 years after North Las Vegas’ Fire Station 53 was built in 2009, the city discovered something troubling: The building was sinking. Last July, the city began to take action to stop the subsidence and remedy the building’s structural deficits....