Spider Power: Bringing Mother Nature and Medicine Together


Spiders, some people like them, many others don’t.  But there’s no deny the service the provide keeping the fly and mosquito numbers down.  But what if they could do more to benefit the human race?  Local researches are working to bring together Mother Nature, and medicine.

There are a select few with the courage to work with creepy, crawly, creatures day after day.  Ingi Agnarsson is one of them.  “This is genetic, I was born like this.  I was 5 years old when i stood up and declared that I was going to become a biologist,” reflected Agnarsson.  He’s an Associate Professor at the University of Vermont, and an Evolutionary Biologist who specializes in spiders.  “Ninety-five percent of people are afraid of spiders for some reason.  They’ve got too many pairs of legs and some of them are a little furry and scary, but almost none of them are dangerous to humans,” he added.

That passion led him, and UVM colleague Linden Higgins to a joint-university effort, headed by the University of Pennsylvania, to better understand the practical applications for spiders.  “Spider silk is a unique material.  It combines strength and elasticity, the ability to be stretched, in a unique way.  So it makes it really tough, at the same time it’s super, super light,” he explained.

Agnarsson says spider silk is a compound that has multiple medical uses, as thread and sutures for example.  “They’ve been used to help skin grafts, form kind of a sheet underneath the skin graft.  People could think about things like tendons, areas where you need a strong, fiber-like thing.  There are just a lot of possibilities,” said Agnarsson.

The difficult part is understanding the specific spider genes which produce the silk.  That’s the task the joint-research team undertook.  Looking at the Golden Orb-Weaver, a large spider commonly found in the US, the team was able to identify a complete genetic sequence.  The first step towards one day, potentially mass-producing a spider-silk-like material.

Agnarsson says who knows, someday a spider may just save your life, “Basically what we found out in nature today are the survivors that presumably have a lot of things that work really well, borrowing from that treasure trove can benefit humans.”

Agnarsson says next up is the Darwin Bark Spider, which he helped to identify in Madagascar in 2009.  He says the silk those spiders produce is the “strongest known material in nature”.


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