Spiders are models for the study of evolution. For instance, they cover long distances using the power of the wind, effectively becoming flying bits of DNA. This moves genes rapidly between populations and I’m interested in the consequences of this in nature.
Spiders also get a reaction – they’re a remarkable tool with which to reach out to people through our research.
Take spider silk. Is this not the most amazing substance on the planet? It can be a thousand times finer than human hair, yet it has incredible strength and flex – and it even has a memory. Twist it multiple times, let it go and it returns exactly to its starting place. It would be incredibly useful to copy this in man-made materials.
Making ambitions a reality
Spider silk may also be useful to us in medicine because, unlike many complex proteins, it does not appear to be covered in molecules that often cause us allergic reaction. Natural house spider silk has some antibacterial activity, but we have managed to make, in collaboration with chemists here at Nottingham, artificial silk with antibiotics attached. These could be used in wound dressings and as a surgical silk thread to release antibiotics when bacteria are present. We are working with a commercial partner to make these sorts of ambitions a reality.
We’re also looking at silk produced by spiders that live in extreme environmental conditions. We’re trying to establish how these silks work so that we can mimic them.
One of the most fun parts of my work is when I get to talk to new colleagues. At a ‘sandpit’ – where researchers present a project and look for collaborators across disciplines – I said I needed help with proteins to make synthetic spider silk. Professor Neil Thomas from Chemistry said: “I can do that!” Our synthetic antibiotic spider silk was created in Neil’s lab in the Centre of Biomolecular Sciences. Not only did he make synthetic silk but also he incorporated a type of molecular Velcro, to which molecules such as antibiotics can be stuck, thus giving the silk new properties.
We wanted to invite school groups to the SpiderLab, but it’s a working lab with expensive kit, so my students successfully fundraised for an ‘Arachnarium’ for our visitors to meet our spiders. This complements our visits to schools. I’ve found that children are fine with spiders and are happy to handle them until one child reacts, at which point most of them do too.
I’m delighted, too, that the public voted for our suggestion of the Fen Raft spider as a species to have its whole genome sequenced as part of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute’s ‘25 Genome Project’. It’s sequencing 25 species from the UK as part of a global plan to sequence all life on Earth.
People love our sailing spiders. They use surface tension to zip across water, legs held aloft as sails. This discovery explains why spiders are able to disperse across continents and oceans. It follows on from our finding that spiders can ‘balloon’ – ie use their silk as a sail to fly as high as the jet stream to carry them across continents. Amazing!
Weird but wonderful
At Manchester Science Festival, I met psychologists who measured people’s reaction to different sizes of images of spiders. We’re now setting up an outreach project and want to support a network of artists and child mental health specialists, teachers and forest schools experts to take people outside and inspire curiosity about their environment.
Another project involves insecticide resistance and money spiders. Money spiders eat crop pests. We know that spiders can survive in puddles and rivulets and by incorporating these in their practice, farmers could protect and encourage spiders.
Researchers in spider genetics have a sense of community. We’re working with creatures that some regard as slightly weird, but we think are rather wonderful. It’s fun too that my work with spiders inspired a cartoon strip. I’m happy when science capture people’s attention in creative ways, which in turn invites them to ask questions that intrigue me as a scientist.