A Sticky Web We’d Like To Weave

This beautiful image of a banded garden spider caught my eye before I realized that this story was about one of my favorite subjects – biomimicry.  In this case, researchers are trying to figure out the properties of the glue-like substance that spiders deposit along the rings of silk in their webs that give the web its stickiness.

This is one the many fascinating biomimicry projects in an emerging field of devoted to the study and imitation of nature’s remarkably efficient designs. Scientists around the world are trying to unlock the evolutionary secrets of nature to develop such practical applications as wound healing inspired by flies, vaccines without refrigeration inspired by the resurrection plant, and water-resistant glues inspired by the tenacious adhesive properties of mussels.

It’s well-known that silk is, by weight, stronger than steel. By finding out precisely what makes spider webs so sticky, professor Ali Dhinojwala of the University of Akron, hopes to create more efficient and environment-friendly materials based on natural material, particularly bandages and other “bio-adhesives” that must retain their stickiness when in contact with water. An expert in the surface properties of polymers, Dhinojwala has also helped design synthetic carbon nanotube-based (in other words, glue-less) adhesive tapes inspired by another critter known for its stickiness– geckos. This time he’s investigating the microscopic substance that orb-weaving spiders deposit along the round rings of silk they spin as part of their webs. Those droplets–three times thinner than the diameter of a single hair–capture the flies and other insects that spiders eat. Turns out those drops, composed of highly entangled polymers, are both viscous and elastic. For details and a cool video, click here.

photo credit: Allison Hazen

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