How is a brown recluse spider like a samurai swordsmith? | 11/7/2018 | Staff
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There are two characteristics that work together to make spider silk so strong and tough.

Hannes Schniepp says that the molecular structure of the protein from which the silk is spun—the first part of the spider's secret—is pretty well understood.

Modern - Biology - Tools - Sequence - Schniepp

"Modern biology has given us the tools to run a sequence," Schniepp said. "But that's only one step."

Schniepp is an associate professor in William & Mary's Department of Applied Science. He and his lab have been working on reverse-engineering the second step: how the spider's spinner apparatus mechanically processes and organizes the protein. Some spiders have evolved organs to extrude strands that, for their size, are much stronger than steel. They have received new funding from the National Science Foundation to continue their research.

Lab - Brown - Recluse - Spiders - Schniepp

The lab focuses on brown recluse spiders, which Schniepp compares to the guild of legendary Asian swordsmiths.

"The smiths that worked for the samurai in Japan figured out a very complicated way of making blades that were better than any other sword," he said. "It was all in the way they treated the material.

End - Blade - Iron - Carbon—but - Way

"In the end, the blade is still made of iron and carbon—but if you treat them the right way, you get an outstanding product," he continued.

The Japanese swordsmiths didn't discuss the secrets of their craft and neither does the brown recluse. So the Schiepp lab uses an array of instruments and techniques to infer the spider's method from detailed, minute examination of the web material.

Schniepp - Material - Scientists - Brown - Recluse

Schniepp and other material scientists are interested in learning the brown recluse's secrets as an essential first step to synthesizing the substance. He points out that his lab is also interested in other natural silks.

"The brown recluse spider as a really exciting model system that provides us unique insights into how silk works. And so far, we have focused strongly on the brown...
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