Spider Man
Page 4 of 4

Ed Tillinghast Lisa Nugent/UNH Photographic Services

Alas, spiders are not suited to farming. "Put 10,000 of them in a room and a week later you'd have one mean-looking one left," quipped the CEO of a Canadian biotech company that has developed a genetically modifed goat that produces spider-silk protein in its milk. From his own research, Tillinghast notes another problem: It would take 30 garden spiders 10 weeks to make the same amount of silk produced by one silkworm in one day.

To reproduce spider silk, humans must understand not only the material but also the mechanics. Tillinghast, usually in collaboration with Townley and sometimes with UNH plant biologist Christopher Neefus '82G, has made chemical, mechanical and molecular studies of spider silk and its production. "Ed has been one of the most important figures studying the chemistry of silk and particularly in understanding how liquid glues in webs operate," notes Todd Blackledge, a University of Akron researcher. The glue—which is laid down on some of the silk as it is extruded through a spider's spinnerets—is what traps a victim long enough for a spider to wrap it up. This is the part of the web—up to 40-60 percent by weight—that is coated with sugar molecules. It, too, is considered a potential industrial model, for synthetic adhesives. (As to why a spider doesn't get caught in the glue in its own web, Tillinghast says the sticky droplets are spaced out, so that a spider, with its tiny feet, is in effect "never really getting more than a toe stuck. But a flying insect hits the glue in many places. It's like being spot welded to the web." Further, he surmises, "if you took Argiope and threw her into her own web, she'd be stuck, too.")

Tillinghast, Blackledge adds, has also made contributions to the understanding of the mechanics of silk production, studying the different glands that make up a spider's spinnerets, which are capable of producing six different types of silk. "A lot of people take what I call the white-lab-rat approach," says Blackledge. "They study a single species of spider and one kind of silk. But Ed's approach has been to ask broader questions." In addition to Argiope, brown recluses, black widows and barn spiders, Tillinghast has also studied the large golden orb weaver. (He once climbed a tree to rescue one that had escaped). He's studied how spiderlings make a communal hole in the egg sac with their digestive juices when it's time to emerge and how starvation affects the composition of spider webs.

For Tillinghast, there's nothing like scientific discovery and observation. "It's a feeling of joy," he says. "It's our very nature. People want to understand things." So he will continue to pursue his interests in the "damnedest things," using what may seem like improbable methods. Ultimately, some of his results could help lead to new inventions or treatments. Already he has helped increase our understanding of these reviled but abundant creatures—some 40,000 species have been identified so far—with which, for better or worse, we must share the planet.

Tillinghast has no such ambivalence. During a morning spent spider hunting with his wife in the depths of South Carolina's Congaree Swamp some years ago, he had stepped off the boardwalk to search among the clumps of grass when Margaret called out: "Look out, there's a cottonmouth!" Sure enough, one poisonous snake crossed his path and another glided by through the water. Ed and Margaret retreated to the boardwalk, and then they saw it: a spiny orb weaver, resembling a tiny red, white and black crab, at the center of its circular web. The web was flecked with tufts of silk and illuminated by slanting sunlight against a backdrop of ancient trees draped with Spanish moss. "It was a moment of uncommon beauty," he says, "and there I was with the two loves of my life." He only kissed one of them. ~

Also read:
About That Brown Recluse Bite

Page: 1 2 3 4

 Easy to print version

blog comments powered by Disqus