During the Cretaceous Period, which dates back more than one hundred million years, some of the creatures of the forest undergrowth started to evolve, developing sticky surfaces that were perfect for trapping other insects that would then provide the protein and other nutrients that they craved. Their descendants are spiders, who continue to this day to use this highly efficacious hunting technique to trap other insects, complementing their catch with nectar and pollen.
Cobwebs, nature’s steel
Spiders’ webs can take various forms: spiral, tangled, funnel-shaped, or tubular, to name but a few. All serve to capture the spider’s prey, and are formed from a protein that is known as silk. While bees create the same substance, moth caterpillars are the major users, using the silk to spin a cocoon around themselves when they are ready to pupate.
The spider’s silk, though, is rather special, not just because it is sticky and is used to trap insects, but also, and especially, because it has been proved to be as stong as the best industrial steel.
This explains why experiments have been going on for many years to find a way to emulate this silk for use in building construction.
A goat in the lab
Researchers in Utah State University have successfully reproduced what nature invented in the mists of time. Using genetic engneering techniques, these researchers implanted spider genes in a number of goats, to create a spider-goat.
Thes goats look and behave precisely the same as other goats, the only difference being that their milk contains the special protein of which a spiders’ web is made.
Extracting this protein from the goat’s milk is a simple matter. Once combined with other materials, it can be used to produce bio-steel that is seven times more durable, lighter, and twenty times more flexible than regular steel. More, this steel is stable at a temperature range of -20 to 330 degrees celsius.
Heading for the future
Scientists already have some idea as to how to put this discovery into practical use. While some see applications in new-generation bullet-proof clothing, others, in the bio-medical field, would use it to reconstruct damaged muscle tissue, but there is also consensus for its use in building bridges
These bridges would be light and much easier to build, and could also be rendered eye-catching, because, the material, like the silk, from which it is derived, has maintained its ability to absorb color.
From the long-ago hunger of a spider, we might see engineers and fashion designers building bridges, over which our future will lie.
Expo Milano 2015 provides an opportunity for visitors to increase their understanding of our planet’s biodiversity.
Locatedin the Expo’s Thematic Area, the Biodiversity Park
is designed to call attention to Italy’s outstanding qualities in terms of the environment, agriculture, and agri-food production. Visitors to the park will see how Italy’s agricultural biodiversity has evolved and is being safeguarded, their visit complemented by events, seminars, and multi-media experiences.