Elementary, my dear: Spider webs: Not just for walking into anymore

<p>Because of their great strength and elasticity, spider webs are under scrutiny by scientists these days. Researchers are looking for ways to reproduce the spider silk by genetically altering plants and animals.</p>

The roof over our south porch is supported by four wooden pillars equidistant apart and just the perfect place for hanging fuchsia baskets and wind chimes and… spider webs. At this time of year we are likely to have six or seven huge orb-shaped webs waiting to ensnare us if we unthinkingly step out onto the lawn without ducking.

I don’t know which variety of spiders makes these gorgeous webs. They remind me of Halloween decorations and of the Garth Williams illustrations for E. B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web.” So far, we haven’t found any messages woven in the spider silk, but I have to confess that I keep looking.

Spider webs have been much in the news lately. I think we all have heard that they are known for their strength. In fact, scientists have determined that a given weight of spider silk is five times as strong as the same weight of steel. The implications of that discovery are quite mind-boggling.

Apparently, there could be many applications for spider silk if only there were a large enough supply. For instance, due to its strength and elasticity, spider silk fiber could have several medical uses, such as for making artificial ligaments and tendons, for eye sutures, and for jaw repair. The silk could also have applications in bulletproof vests and improved car airbags.

So, in a first-things-first and scientific manner, researchers began looking for a way to produce spider silk in large quantities. At first they tried raising gazillions of the arachnids on spider farms but spider silk is extremely hard to mass produce. Unlike silk worms, which are easy to raise in captivity, spiders tend to be cannibalistic. Maintaining a workforce becomes problematic.

The researchers then switched from spider farming to the ‘magic’ of genetic engineering. Researchers at the University of Wyoming have managed to alter the DNA of goats so that they can produce spider silk proteins in their milk. And, under the category of “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” I have to admit to a slight bit of angst when I shop for goat cheese these days.

Although goats’ milk produces spider silk in far greater quantities than the spiders do themselves, there is hope that another, improved method can be found. One possibility is to genetically alter alfalfa plants. Since plants naturally produce proteins in the first place, adding the spider silk protein is not much of a change for them. The advantage to this method is that it can be done on a large scale. Thousands of acres could be used to grow alfalfa plants.

That bit of information immediately took me back to the 1970s in California when everyone I knew was sprouting alfalfa seeds in cupboards and other dark places — even under their beds, as I recall. I think I tried it once or twice but I’m not a big sprout fan (they get stuck in my teeth) so I gave it up. Still, I’m sure many people are still sprout-growers and I wonder how they feel about the spider silk possibilities.

As might be expected, these thoughts lead me right into the current political arena in Washington state. Who would think that something as delicate and beautiful as a spider’s web could in any way be related to transparency in labeling foods at the grocery store. I wonder what Charlotte would have had to say about it.

Sydney Stevens lives in her family’s ancestral home in Oysterville with her husband Nyel.

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