The 2018 Spider Silk Team is led by Wendy Welshans, who is assisted by Jason Epstein, a student researcher. The Spider Silk Team has a long history, which started in 1997 as an “accident” when a student silked a Golden Orb Weaver using nothing but his hands and a coke bottle! The program has since evolved to possess two groundbreaking patents to its name as well as becoming the life’s work of Wendy Welshans.
The Nephila Clavipes, common name Golden Orb Weaver, is native to the southern states in the United States of America as well as Latin America. In fact, it is heavily present in Costa Rica, where the majority of the team’s research is done. Spider silk has many positive qualities: it does not cause immune responses when implanted in the human body– meaning the silk could be used for artificial tendons, tissue scaffolding, or even nerve regrowth; the Nephila’s silk is at least three times stronger than Kevlar, and more elastic– meaning silk could be used as ballistics protection (Cheryl Hayashi, 2010). To further attest to its strength, in 2017, the Spider Team conducted tensile strength testing of spider silk in 250 strand bundles, which are still functionally weightless but have an average of 6.21 Newtons, attesting to its strength.
The overall goal of the Spider Team, besides carefully documenting the amazing properties of one of the strongest natural fibers of the world, is to create a sustainable resource in the tropics of the rainforest that can replace cattle ranching. Harvesting spider silk would utilize land that would otherwise need to be destroyed. The Nephila spider must live in its natural habitat to produce quality silk. The flora in its home, however, is a veritable treasure trove as well. Interestingly, almost 25% of prescription drugs are made using ingredients derived from plants (James A. Duke, 1997), and yet only 1% of plants in the most biodiverse area on earth have been studied. Preserving the rainforest allows for the study of potential life-saving drugs. Adoption of silking gives access to a valuable animal product as well as flora that can be worth more than gold.
The Forman Rainforest Project had its first official expedition in the spring of 1992. A year later in 1993, the arachnid project was introduced where student researchers studied Argiope spiders as well as the Golden Orb Weaver (Nephila Clavipes). Originally, the arachnid project focused on studying web anatomy and its construction. It was not until Bryan Sullivan (arachnid project 1997) and the “coke bottle incident” did spider silk itself pique interest: Bryan was handling a golden orb weaver when it laid a sticky disc– a sticky glob of silk that a spider drops to anchor its silk line– on Bryan’s hand and continued to let out dragline, the strongest type of silk the spider produces; Bryan started to wrap the silk around a coke bottle and noticed its incredible strength. It would not be until 2002 that the Forman Spider Team was officially founded.
The 2018 team has decided on three goals for agenda:
- The team will be collecting spider silk samples 4 feet/ 1.22 meters long of varying bundle sizes by working with Alex Newbury– resident in UMASS Medical School for Orthopedics– and Teleflex, a biomedical company, to conduct research using spider silk as suture materials and for use in repairing flexor tendons in the hand,
- The Spider Team will continue to be recording the tensile strength of spider silk as was done for the past 20 years. The goal of this research is to find the link between atmospheric conditions and the silk’s strength to answer the question: When is the silk secreted by spiders the strongest– at a certain temperature, or specific barometric pressure?
- In anticipation of spider silk becoming a valuable resource, the Team will be creating a working manual on how to silk spiders, including:
- People-to-spider ratio for maintaining efficiency
- Identifying different qualities of silk
- Providing methodology of silking the spiders
- Properly capturing, housing, and maintaining spiders.
Once the team lands in Costa Rica and everything is settled, a trek to El Plastico commences. The Spider Team collects the Nephila Clavipes in transit; the Nephila clavipes is plentiful in the area. The method employed in capturing the spiders resembles the hand placement one has in order to make a shadow puppet of a crocodile. A team member swiftly closes their hands around the spider. An important note is that the researcher should not be concerned about disturbing the web when apprehending the spider. Another thing to note is when collecting the spiders, the researcher needs only target the females, which are easily identified because they are much bigger than the males, of which there is usually one on the web. After apprehending the spider, the researcher simply traps them in a bag, typically the Spider Team uses an onion bag acquired in town. One should not worry about multiple spiders in the bag cannibalizing each other. It has has occurred that in the bag, one spider has eaten another, but they have been rare occurrences.
Once the Team arrives at El Plastico, it is important to immediately set the spiders in their habitat. At the El Plastico basecamp, there is a permanent habitat for the spiders constructed out of wood. It is simply open squares situated vertically. After a team member puts a spider in its own box, its instincts will take over and it should set up a web in that location without any further encouragement. A small note is that the male Nephila clavipes and smaller parasitic spiders will appear in the webs over time; however, this is normal. Mapping all the female spiders in the constructed habitat will be one of the most important tasks to set up the silking operation. Mapping allows to identify all of the spiders and where they are situated. It is important to record which spider was silked and at what time. The time of day and weather conditions at the time can greatly affect the silk quantity and quality. Also, the record is important because oversilking a spider can cause distress or even kill her, not to mention affecting the quality of silk.
This described method of silking should be observed closely, as this procedure has been shaped after almost two decades of the Spider Team’s trial and error.
- The first step of silking is removing the female spider from her web. It is important not to disturb the web. The method used is affectionately called the “Welshans’ Cage Method”. The researcher hovers their hand in front of a web, slowly moving it downward towards the spider. The Nephila’s instinct is to travel upwards, which is used to our benefit. The spider should attempt to travel over the researcher’s hand, it is at this point that the hand is gently closed around the spider. The Nephila clavipes is not aggressive, and will only bite if pinched or handled roughly. That being said, if bitten, the only effect will be local redness and swelling.
- The Nephila should be supported on the back of the hand, prompting her to lay a sticky disc– a type of silk used to anchor their dragline– in the hand of the handler. It is important to immediately place the sticky disc around the silkinator’s wheel. Using two hands, the handler should move their hands in a waterfalling motion, which tricks the spider in to thinking it is falling, thus stimulating it to continue to let out its silk.
- A second researcher should turn the silkinator’s crank. A bike odometer is used to count the number of rotations the wheel has made, which should under no circumstances exceed 350 in order not to overtax the spider. Once 350 rotations has been reached,or the spider stops silking on its own, it is returned to its own web. It is important not to directly handle the silk on the wheel, but to use forceps so as not to leave oils from the skin on the silk. The current version of the silkinator features collapsible rods, which makes removal much easier. The silk sample should be labeled and stored for later testing.
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