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Spider Silk

Spider Silk: Evolution and 400 Million Years of Spinning, Waiting, Snagging, and Mating

Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Spider Silk
    Book Description:

    Spiders, objects of eternal human fascination, are found in many places: on the ground, in the air, and even under water. Leslie Brunetta and Catherine Craig have teamed up to produce a substantive yet entertaining book for anyone who has ever wondered, as a spider rappelled out of reach on a line of silk, "How do they do that?"

    The orb web, that iconic wheel-shaped web most of us associate with spiders, contains at least four different silk proteins, each performing a different function and all meshing together to create a fly-catching machine that has amazed and inspired humans through the ages. Brunetta and Craig tell the intriguing story of how spiders evolved over 400 million years to add new silks and new uses for silk to their survival "toolkit" and, in the telling, take readers far beyond the orb. The authors describe the trials and triumphs of spiders as they use silk to negotiate an ever-changing environment, and they show how natural selection acts at the genetic level and as individuals struggle for survival.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16315-5
    Subjects: Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Zoology, Biological Sciences

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  5. A Timeline of the Spider Fossil Record
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  6. ONE Fossils
    (pp. 1-15)

    The ancient Greeks imagined the common ancestor of all spiders as a human, a girl named Arachne. Arachne was a show-off. Her prodigious mastery of spinning and weaving so spellbound her observers that they found watching her work as enthralling as viewing the marvelous tapestries she produced. No other mortal could understand how she maccomplished her bold effects and intricate subtleties. The only possible explanation, they believed, was that a goddess, Athena, had endowed her with special skills. But Arachne scoffed at this idea, boasting that she had come by her craft on her own and, furthermore, that she could...

  7. TWO Living Fossils
    (pp. 16-24)

    In 1849 the Danish entomologist Jørgen Matthias Christian Schiødte examined a number of specimens he had received from a collector who captured animals on the island of Penang, off the Malay Peninsula, then under the control of the British East India Company. At that time interested colonists and professional collectors would take specimens out of the European colonies in Asia and Africa and bring or send them back to Europe, where they often made up the bulk of the “exotic” collections in Western natural history museums. Zoologists associated with these museums, like Schiødte, played an important role in describing and...

  8. THREE Chance and Change
    (pp. 25-40)

    Mesotheles present scientists with a puzzle. Arachnologists hypothesize that the first spiders produced a single type of silk protein from a single type of silk gland. But some mesothele species possess three types of silk gland, and each of these glands has three regions, each producing a different type of silk protein. Other mesothele species possess four types of silk gland. These glands, too, produce different silk proteins in different regions. And yet mesotheles behave as though, like the first spiders, they have only a single type of silk. Spiders that evolved later use silk from one gland to coat...

  9. FOUR Outward and Upward
    (pp. 41-55)

    Tarantulas make good movie props. They are hairy, stocky, and often big; a tarantula can hold the viewer’s eye as it creeps under the sheets and along Sean Connery’s arm toward his head inDr. Noor defies gravity to clamber silently up Harrison Ford’s jacket inRaiders of the Lost Ark. Some tarantulas are so big they were enlarged to house size without loss of focus in such shockers as the 1955Tarantula(“More terrifying than any horror known to man!”) and the 1958Earth vs. the Spider(“It must eat you to live!”). They are the spiders of...

  10. FIVE Triumph over Thin Air
    (pp. 56-72)

    A spider sits motionless at the edge of a bookshelf. It senses a sudden shift in the air around its body, the riffling of its sensory bristles putting it on alert. Its eyes discern a huge object sweeping toward it. But before the approaching hand slams down on it, the spider dives over the edge of the shelf, descending on a shimmering filament of silk. The hand, not fast enough to intercept the dive, grabs the silk and jerks it upward. But the spider reels out more and more silk, plummeting until it lands on the floor and sprints for...

  11. SIX Small Changes, Big Benefits
    (pp. 73-95)

    If anyone ever dares to film a remake ofThe Graduate, the “one word, just one word” that Mr. McGuire will want to say to Dustin Hoffman’s successor won’t beplasticsbutproteins. For decades, scientists and the public alike thought that decoding the genome—the complete sequence of DNA in an organism—would unlock the secrets of biology. But we now know that proteomics, the large-scale study of proteins, is a necessary next step after genomics on the way to promised practical breakthroughs in medicine and other biology-based technologies. Unfortunately, proteomics is even more challenging than genomics. Proteins are...

  12. SEVEN Spinning, Running, Jumping, Swimming
    (pp. 96-110)

    Nonbiologists often consider the orb web the pinnacle of spider silk evolution. Humans stand upright, so flying insects—the insects that orb webs catch—are the insects that usually get our attention, sometimes because they are getting our blood. But more distant from our eyes and ears, the ground and the surfaces of plants host many insects, as well as other small arthropods. After the evolution of major ampullate silk, spiders had many opportunities to branch out without having to compete for air space. Araneomorphs evolving later than lampshade spiders did not all elaborate on the suspended, three-dimensional lampshade web...

  13. Color plates
    (pp. None)
  14. EIGHT Going Vertical
    (pp. 111-135)

    In one of the best American novels of all time, a spider saves a pig from slaughter by weaving messages such as “some pig,” “terrific,” and “radiant” into her webs. The heroine of E. B. White’sCharlotte’s Web, Charlotte A. Cavatica, that “true friend and good writer,” is a barn spider,Araneus cavaticus, and like all barn spiders she spins vertical orb webs. Even without slogans, vertical orb webs tend to transfix us; these are what most people think of when they hear the wordspiderweb:the familiar hub-and-spoke silken warp and weft undulating in the breeze. White’s description of...

  15. NINE Links
    (pp. 136-156)

    The ultra-stretchy and ultra-sticky proteins forming the capture spirals in vertical orb webs evolved from older silk proteins and protein glues. Since spiders’ earliest days, their most dramatic evolutionary leaps have been rooted in silk-gene changes. But spiders have also experienced many other evolutionary changes. Consider the body of a burrow-dwelling mesothele and the body of any garden-variety vertical orb spinner. The differences are immediately obvious. The mesothele is bigger and stouter. Its legs are thick and sturdy, unlike the orb spinner’s long, delicate legs. The mesothele’s abdomen is obviously segmented, and its spinnerets are tucked underneath, midway along its...

  16. TEN Now You See It, Now You Don’t
    (pp. 157-170)

    Not long ago, an American hiker clambered through the Tsingy, an expansive limestone karst formation jutting up through the deciduous forests of western Madagascar. Seared gray pinnacles met a piercing blue sky about 45 meters (150 feet) above the ground, forming a horizon as closely jagged as a seismograph printout. Folklore ascribes an onomatopoeic etymology totsingy(pronounced “tzing” in Malagasy): it replicates the sound the stone makes when hit with a stick. But the hiker’s guide explained that it actually comes from the local word for “tip-toe,” which was how the Malagasy’s ancestors—who many Malagasy believe still affect...

  17. ELEVEN Beyond “Perfect”
    (pp. 171-185)

    We marvel at orb webs but sweep away cobwebs. Orb webs represent industry and artistry, cobwebs confusion, disorder, decay. They are messy and sticky, and altogether rather disgusting. But cobwebs, created by the family Theridiidae, are actually more “advanced” than orb webs in the sense that nonbiologists often use the word. Systematic examination of the anatomy and webs of araneoid spiders has revealed that cobwebs evolved later, as descendants of orb webs that are successful responses to the environmental challenges vertical-orb spinners encounter. Cobwebs may not be as pretty as orb webs, but in some ways they are more cunning....

  18. TWELVE Endless Forms
    (pp. 186-192)

    Spiders or their near ancestors have been producing silk from abdominal silk glands for almost as long as animals have lived on land. When spiders’ ancestors first began to use silk to protect their eggs or line their burrows, the earth’s land masses were mostly gravelly barren deserts, softened only by short, spindly plants living close to shore. Today the land holds habitats ranging from baking sand dunes to lush rain forests, from verdant valley meadows to sparse carpets of moss clinging to mountaintop rocks. Spiders prosper in all these habitats. Many spiders still use silk to hole up in...

  19. Notes
    (pp. 193-198)
  20. Glossary
    (pp. 199-204)
  21. Bibliography
    (pp. 205-218)
  22. Index
    (pp. 219-229)