Fritz Vollrath, research leader at the Zoology dept, is heading a team of scientists known as the 'Oxford Silk Project' that is studying the biological, chemical and mechanical properties of silk from spiders webs for use in industry.

Photo by Andy Hall/Getty Images

Good morning class. Pop quiz: What has eight legs, causes you to constantly run from them when you find them in your apartment, and secretes one of the most elusive substances known to mankind? 

Time’s up. 

If you guessed octopus, first and foremost, wow, you really need to look for a new living situation. But if you guessed spiders — like we really hope you did — bravo! Not only are you great at deducing elementary-level puzzles, but you are now one step closer to helping us solve one of mankind’s GREATEST MYSTERIES: how to replicate the materials found in spiderwebs!

This is the point early on where you think, “What’s the big deal about spiderwebs? I run into that garbage all the time. It’s annoying! It gets in my mouth and messes up my hair!” Maybe so, but outside of their seemingly annoying characteristics, the genetic makeup of spiderwebs is incredibly mysterious, wicked strong, and despite the best efforts of our best scientists, has been alluding our efforts to replicate it for nearly a century. 

Silky, smooth, and secretive

Now, when most people think of the strongest, most indestructible substances in the world, they naturally think of steel, a man’s will to resist asking for directions, or your mother-in-law’s pot roast (sorry Diane). But the silk that spiders create for use in their webs is actually stronger than ALL of that! If you took a chunk of steel measuring 1 foot in width and compared it to a gob of spider’s silk measuring an equal width, the spider silk would actually be a whole heckuva LOT stronger!

With single strands coming in at just 0.003 millimeters in width, this magic poop (I mean, it does come out of their butt, right? Right?) has world-changing potential. It’s been hypothesized — but sadly, never attempted — that a single pencil-width strand of spider silk would have the potential to bring a 747 airplane to a screeching halt! If only … we could figure out how to freakin’ replicate it. Despite decades of trying, scientists have only been able to reproduce 20 complete genetic sequences. And with 45,000 known varieties of spiders, each producing between one and seven unique “flavors” of their own brand of silk, it’s going to be a very long time before we are able to get a full-on grasp of what we could do with this strong stuff. Tough break for the egos of these hardworking scientists, but great for their long-term job security!

Web! (UGH!) What is it good for? (WAR!)

Digging deep to develop new uses for this poo goo is not an original thought. Past uses of the uber-fiber have been attempted, dating all the way back to the 1940s. During World War II, historically helpful supernerd Nan Songer, an arachnid enthusiast from Yucaipa, helped the Allied powers take down our cross-continental baddies by painstakingly and carefully harvesting spider silk from her one-hundred-plus black widow collection. What she was doing with a black widow collection into the three digits prior to this opportunity is none of my business, but I appreciate her willingness to delicately extract her collection’s silk and give it to the brave boys serving in our military — where they used the webbing to fit over 100,000 bombers and rifles with extremely fine, ultraprecise, and supremely durable gun sights. And guess what: We won that war! What else could we accomplish if we had the time, energy, and general know-how to harness the silk’s power?

If we could figure out how to reproduce spider silk, we could create balloons that would never pop, leggings that would never tear (no matter how deep of a squat you did), exercise bands that wouldn’t snap, and condoms that would never break. Plus, how smooth would you sound laying down that last proposal at a bar: “Hey baby, wanna know why they call me ‘Spider-Man?’” Gross … but effective! 

Scanning electron microscope (SEM) micrograph showing spider's silk, at a magnification of 1500xScanning electron microscope (SEM) micrograph showing spider's silk, at a magnification of 1500x
Scanning electron microscope (SEM) micrograph showing spider’s silk, at a magnification of 1500x (Image by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

OK, sure … but … SPIDERS?!?

If you have read this far, good on you. The topic of cultivating spider gack is not for the faint of heart! For the most part, we are either terrified of the little buggers or we are looking for ways to get them out of our home as fast as we can. According to the American Psychiatric Association, 1 out of 10 people in the states suffers from a phobia with 40% of those being bug, mice, bat, or snake-related. And yes, spiders more than likely make up a huge quantity of that “big” subsection. Because while many of us hate having ants in our pants, not as many have a full-on phobia about them. 

Despite our universal selfishness as a society, spiders are one category that for some reason we haven’t been exploiting for our personal benefit. Unless you count the late Stan Lee, Sony, Marvel, and every other company in the last 20 years who has rebooted Peter Parker’s iconic character to death! If I told you that a certain breed of dog produced an irreplaceable, wildly beneficial natural by-product (other than hot, breathy puppy kisses!), people would be snatching up those precious pups in no time! But when the subject turns to spiders, we as a society tend to go, “Um … yeah, what else ya got?”

Part of this frankly has to come from our own embarrassment. Spiders and people have never been the best of friends. We make movies about them (anyone else STILL having Arachnophobiainspired nightmares?), dress up as them on Halloween, and sing nursery rhymes to our kids about how they’ll cause you to scream and sprint off with your curds and whey. We’ve been running from them and swatting at them and paying big bucks to have pest control companies come out and remove them, and all of this time they had the secret to a better tomorrow cold chillin’ in their booty? That is going to be mortifying! What are you going to tell me next, that BEES are not just pain-inflicting but actually super important creatures that we need for our planet to survive? AS IF!

A good excuse to use this catchy lyric

“I’m walking into spiderwebs. So leave a message and I’ll call you back.” As we’ve been learning, had nu-ska pioneer No Doubt’s fearless leader REALLY been walking into Gwen Stefani-sized spiderwebs as she claimed to have on the band’s very skankable 1995 single, she probably wouldn’t have been able to chitchat so easily, as she’d be bound for the foreseeable future! But while tied up in their ultrafine grasp, Ms. Stefani might have been able to take an up-close peek at the web’s wonder and help us break down their contents as other history-changing women recently have. 

UNSPECIFIED - OCTOBER 28:  Orb-weaver spiders (Araneidae) web  (Photo by DEA / C.DANI / I.JESKE/De Agostini via Getty Images)
UNSPECIFIED - OCTOBER 28:  Orb-weaver spiders (Araneidae) web  (Photo by DEA / C.DANI / I.JESKE/De Agostini via Getty Images)
DEA / C.DANI / I.JESKE / via Getty images

In June, the esteemed Sarah Stellwagen, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and co-author Rebecca Renberg from the Army Research Lab, published their aforementioned incredibly slept-on but potentially history-changing breakthrough study where they confirm that they have cracked the longest spider gene sequence ever! Their 42,000-base-long genetic sequence was the first of its kind, and while silk alludes them, they think they are getting closer to every spiderweb’s equally noteworthy companion: GLUE!

Spider glue (or “Spoo,” as the kids call it), has the potential to be even more amazing for society than their silk. Because while silk is as durable as the day is long, the glue is not only incredibly strong, but as we have all learned from life experiences, can be quickly wiped away with a minimal amount of effort. Dr. Stellwagen supposes that, should we be able to replicate their glue, it could be a game changer for farmers, who for decades have been looking for cleaner, more plant- and animal-friendly pesticides. Everyone hates the idea of spraying harmful chemicals to get rid of flies and other nasty flying vermin. But what if they didn’t have to? If we were able to replicate spider glue, we could catch those cretins as smoothly as our eight-legged buddies! Spread a thick coat of that good stuff around your doorway and watch those annoying bugs stick! I mean, if it’s good enough for a spider, why not? Plus, at the end of the day, we’d be able to take a hose to the gunk and spray it all off without worrying that it would pollute our already-sensitive ecosystem. Dang spiders, you the real MVP! 

Eight legs, eight eyes, a world of possibilities

Let’s get real: Spiders are very few people’s favorite subject. We don’t like looking at them, we don’t like having them in our homes, and outside of an incredibly small segment of the population with a super specific kink, we dang sure don’t like walking face-first into their inconveniently placed webs. But if you were able to take anything away from our brief and meaningful time together, it is that while spiderwebs can be a bit of a spooky nuisance, their potential benefits far outweigh any nightmare-inducing encounters you may have. So next time, before taking that trusty outdoor broom to one of their intricately designed creations, say, “Thank you for your wonderful, mysterious gift to our planet.”

Then wipe it away.