Yesterday’s post was dedicated to spider silk and many of its wondrous uses. Today’s post is about the most wondrous use for spider silk of all. But first, an interlude to talk about comic books.
You know how Spiderman uses his synthetic webbing for all sorts of purposes beyond “slinging”? Sure, there’s the “getting around” webbing, but he can also gift-wrap criminals, or use the “silk” as a projectile glue-bomb that blinds them. He can spin webbing that acts like an airfoil or a parachute. All of these are things that real spiders can do with the seven or eight types of silk for which they’re equipped. But could a spider use his silk to make baseball bats, trampolines, dummies, bandages and slings, or even watertight domes that would trap air so that he could breathe underwater?
Yeah, about that last one.
This is the Diving Bell Spider. It is the world’s only fully aquatic spider, a native of Europe that uses its silk to create not a web but a bubble to call home. First, a net is woven. Then the spider collects air from the surface in the hairs on its legs and deposits it inside the net. Once the bubble is large enough to live in, it will never need to return to the surface again; unlike human aqualungs, it will never need to be replenished. The silk that contains the bubble facilitates osmotic gas exchange, bringing in dissolve oxygen from the water and diffusing exhaled carbon dioxide. All molting, feeding, and mating is done inside the bubble; the spider will only leave it briefly to hunt. The only other animal that can create a bubble that allows it to breathe underwater is a rare species of hedgehog.
Now consider this: Scientists have already genetically engineered goats to be able to produce spider silk proteins in their milk. Also, they’ve genetically modified silkworms to produce spider silk. The original purpose of the projects was to create better bulletproof vests for the military, but now all kinds of applications seem possible: bandages, artificial tendons, high-tensile cable, and biodegradable fishing nets. Spider silk has even been used in neurosurgery to repair damaged neurons in the human brain; consider the medical applications of silk machines. Believe it or not, I’m relatively neutral on the subject of genetically modified organisms, but I can tell you this: once we can produce spider silk in large quantities, there is no stopping us. If you need proof that spider silk is among the strongest, most versatile organic substances on Earth, look no further than the diving bell spider’s osmotic webbing. If we possessed real-life web shooters, we could do everything that Spider-Man could do, and then some. Need a surfboard? A tuxedo? A house? No problem. It will be completely unrippable, and will only need occasional re-applications. Do you want to build a real-life underwater colony? Forget the prohibitively expensive acrylic glass. We’ve got silk. Steel has to be mined, and wood has to be culled from forests. What if we had an organic alternative to both, stronger than steel and more elastic than wood? We could use the silk much like the diving bell spider does: instead of evolving to breathe dissolved oxygen like an aquatic insect, it took a shortcut by simply fashioning a new tool. After all, cheating evolution by use of technology is the story of mankind. It’s who we are. Throughout history, we’ve been limited mostly by our resources. With silk, we’d only be limited by our imaginations.
This is pretty much me, right now.