A rare textile made from the silk of more than a million wild spiders goes on display today at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
To produce this unique golden cloth, 70 people spent four years collecting golden orb spiders from telephone poles in Madagascar, while another dozen workers carefully extracted about 80 feet of silk filament from each of the arachnids. The resulting 11-foot by 4-foot textile is the only large piece of cloth made from natural spider silk existing in the world today.
“Spider silk is very elastic, and it has a tensile strength that is incredibly strong compared to steel or Kevlar,” said textile expert Simon Peers, who co-led the project. “There’s scientific research going on all over the world right now trying to replicate the tensile properties of spider silk and apply it to all sorts of areas in medicine and industry, but no one up until now has succeeded in replicating 100 percent of the properties of natural spider silk.”
Peers came up with the idea of weaving spider silk after learning about the French missionary Jacob Paul Camboué, who worked with spiders in Madagascar during the 1880s and 1890s. Camboué built a small, hand-driven machine to extract silk from up to 24 spiders at once, without harming them.
“Simon managed to build a replica of this 24-spider-silking machine that was used at the turn of the century,” said Nicholas Godley, who co-led the project with Peers. As an experiment, the pair collected an initial batch of about 20 spiders. “When we stuck them in the machine and started turning it, lo and behold, this beautiful gold-colored silk started coming out,” Godley said.
But to make a textile of any significant size, the silk experts had to drastically scale up their project. “Fourteen thousand spiders yields about an ounce of silk,” Godley said, “and the textile weighs about 2.6 pounds. The numbers are crazy.”
Researchers have long been intrigued by the unique properties of spider silk, which is stronger than steel or Kevlar but far more flexible, stretching up to 40 percent of its normal length without breaking. Unfortunately, spider silk is extremely hard to mass produce: Unlike silk worms, which are easy to raise in captivity, spiders have a habit of chomping off each other’s heads when housed together.
To get as much silk as they needed, Godley and Peers began hiring dozens of spider handlers to collect wild arachnids and carefully harness them to the silk-extraction machine. “We had to find people who were willing to work with spiders,” Godley said, “because they bite.”
By the end of the project, Godley and Peers extracted silk from more than 1 million female golden orb spiders, which are abundant throughout Madagascar and known for the rich golden color of their silk. Because the spiders only produce silk during the rainy season, workers collected all the spiders between October and June.
Then an additional 12 people used hand-powered machines to extract the silk and weave it into 96-filament thread. Once the spiders had been milked, they were released into back into the wild, where Godley said it takes them about a week to regenerate their silk. “We can go back and re-silk the same spiders,” he said. “It’s like the gift that never stops giving.”
Of course, spending four years to produce a single textile of spider silk isn’t very practical for scientists trying to study the properties of spider silk or companies that want to manufacture the fabric for use as a biomedical scaffold or an alternative to Kevlar armor. Several groups have tried inserting spider genes into bacteria (or even cows and goats) to produce silk, but so far, the attempts have been only moderately successful.
Part of the reason it’s so hard to generate spider silk in the lab is that it starts out as a liquid protein that’s produced by a special gland in the spider’s abdomen. Using their spinnerets, spiders apply a physical force to rearrange the protein’s molecular structure and turn it into solid silk.
“When we talk about a spider spinning silk, we’re talking about how the spider applies forces to produce a physical transformation from liquid to solid,” said spider silk expert Todd Blackledge of the University of Akron, who was not involved in creating the textile. “Scientists simply can’t replicate that as well as a spider does it. Every year we’re getting closer and closer to being able to mass-produce it, but we’re not there yet.”
For now, it seems we’ll have to be content with one incredibly beautiful cloth, graciously provided by more than a million spiders.
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