Unraveling the secrets of spider silk - FOX 13 News

Unraveling the secrets of spider silk

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TAMPA (FOX 13) -

In the movie "The Amazing Spiderman," crime-fighting teenager Peter Parker swings from New York skyscrapers on simple strands of silk.

But it's that spider silk that's woven into a very different and very real spider story here in Florida.

The story begins with a teenager who found himself in a horrific situation earlier this month. Fred Lansdale says he used sticky cobwebs—the very kind many of us see as a nuisance—to help save his life after alligator ripped off a portion of his forearm in early July.

"My arm was bleeding really bad, so I started grabbing some spider webs and grabbing whatever I could and I put the spider webs on my arm because it will stop the bleeding, " Lansdale told reporters in an interview at the hospital. 

Fred isn't alone: spider silk has helped render first aid for centuries.

"The web can be used as gauze, it's all protein, it's full of vitamin K," said Tim Siebel, with Creature Castle in Brandon.

Siebel says spiders are as complex as the webs they weave.  The eight-legged engineers make silk in their glands, their scissor-like spinnerets release it, and their back legs guide it into unique patterns.

"There are about four different types of webs: one's to trap prey, to immobilize prey, to make a nest, or to protect their young.  A lot of times they just throw a nest on the ground where they can feel the prey approaching. It doesn't trap the prey, but it does alert them to when it's coming closer."

So while spiders might make your skin crawl, some researchers say they are unlocking the future of science.

"If you get past the spider itself and look at the materials these creatures are able to make, there are some remarkably optimized structures that are made for the survival of these creatures,"  said Tufts University professor Dr. David Kaplan.

Kaplan says the soft silk is surprisingly strong. While Hollywood special effects make us believe Spiderman's silk can suspend cars from a bridge and pin a bad guy to a wall, Dr. Kaplan says these fictional scenes are based in scientific reality. 

"If you take an equivalent sort of cross sectional area or size of a fiber of silk versus something like steel, silk is generally considered five times stronger," he explained.

Because it's so stable, Dr. Kaplan's team devised a way to use the tiniest, nano-sized molecules of spider silk in vaccines, eliminating the need for refrigeration.

But it's in the field of regenerative medicine that fact and fiction seem to truly intertwine.

"It was very interesting watching the parts of the movie that were about regenerative medicine," said Dr. Koudy Williams, who says he is fan of the Spiderman franchise.

Williams works at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, where he and other researchers are unraveling the mysteries of these tangled fibers.  He points out biological molds that are being used to create human organs outside the human body, and he says those molds share the same basic chemical make-up as spider webs.

"What that kind of material does is create a home for cells, and for that tissue to regenerate.  We found if you configure a spider web one way, it'll attract cells. If you configure it in another way, it'll attract a different type of cells," he explained.

Williams says the goal is to stimulate the body to heal itself. But unlike the movie, regeneration won't happen by mixing human genes with those of reptiles or fish. In the Spiderman film, one scene shows Peter Parker in the lab, saying "a zebra fish has the ability to regenerate cells on command." Scientists hope to achieve the same level of regenerative capabilities.

"We're just really at the tip of the iceberg of trying to understand and data mine from nature to learn about these kinds of materials, and see what they can do for us in a broader range of applications," Kaplan said.

Researchers admit that the progress is slow, but it's methodical. And just as a fictional superhero harnesses the power of the eight legged arachnid, scientists filled with imagination hope to harness the secrets of the spider; spinning scientific dreams into reality.

Here are some links for more information:

Dr. William Koudy

http://www.wakehealth.edu/Research/WFIRM/Williams-J-Koudy.htm

Dr. David Kaplan

http://engineering.tufts.edu/chbe/people/kaplan/index.asp

 

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