Genetically Engineered Silkworms Spin Super Strong Partly-Spider Silk

Scientists have taken a new step towards mass-producing spider silk, an incredible material whose potential we haven’t been able to harness quite yet. From Not Exactly Rocket Science:

Spider silk is a remarkable material, wonderfully adapted for trapping, crushing, climbing and more. It is extraordinarily strong and tough, while still being elastic enough to stretch several times its original length. Indeed, the toughest biological material ever found is the record-breaking silk of the Darwin’s bark spider. It’s 10 times tougher than Kevlar, and the basis of webs that can span rivers.

Because of its enticing properties, spider silk has enormous potential. It could be put to all sorts of uses, from strong sutures to artificial ligaments to body armour. That is, if only we could make enough of the stuff. Farming spiders is out of the question. They are territorial animals with a penchant for eating each other. It took 82 people, 4 years and 1 million large spiders to make a piece of cloth just 11 feet by 4 feet…

As a large industry and centuries of history can attest to, silkworms are easy to farm in large numbers. And they’re silk-spinning machines, with massive glands that turn silk proteins into fibres…

Fraser had just the right tool for the job. In the 1980s, he identified pieces of DNA that can hop around insect genomes, cutting themselves out of one location and pasting themselves in somewhere else. He named them PiggyBac, and he has turned them into tools for genetic engineering. You can load PiggyBac elements with the genes of your choice, and use them to insert those genes into a given genome. In this case, Florence Teulé and Yun-Gen Miao used PiggyBac to shove spider silk genes into the silk-making glands of silkworms…

These engineered silkworms produced composite fibres that were mostly their own silk, with just 2 to 5 percent spider silk woven among it. This tiny fraction was enough to transform the fibres. They were stronger, more elastic, and twice as tough as normal silkworm fibres. And even though they didn’t approach the strength and elasticity of true spider silk, they were almost just as tough…

The team are also planning to refine their technique to take the silkworms’ own proteins out of the equation. “The next step will be to produce silkworms that produce silk fibres consisting entirely of spider silk proteins,” says Jarvis. Perhaps they could even use the genes from the best of the silk-producers, like Darwin’s bark spider.

Seems like a promising approach; maybe commercial products using spider silk are in our not-too-distant future. Something tells me it won’t be marketed as “spider web” though, so I’m curious to see what companies will call it when they commercialize it. 

You can read about that 11×4 ft cloth made by farming actual spiders at Wired here; the process involved capturing a million spiders off of the street in Madagascar. I previously talked about an art project mixing spider silk and human skin, where the combination was strong enough to take a hit from a bullet at reduced speed. Cool things (not human spider cool, but other kinds of cool) are in our future.

“Ocean Bacteria Glow to Turn Themselves Into Bait”

Aaaand we’re back! I hope you had a lovely break, and that one of your new year’s resolutions was to read even more science! I’ve been off in the non-virtual world for the past week, but it is time to get back to business. And remember that for more science goodness you can follow Science Picks on Twitter at @SciencePicks, or if you’re Twitter-averse you can see the extra links I tweet on the sidebar to the right. 

Not Exactly Rocket Science has an interesting article on glowing ocean bacteria and why they do what they do, with a bit of an introduction here:

On 25 January 1995, the British merchant vessel SS Lima was sailing through the Indian Ocean when its crew noticed something odd. In the ship’s log, the captain wrote, “A whitish glow was observed on the horizon and, after 15 minutes of steaming, the ship was completely surrounded by a sea of milky-white color.” The eerie glow appeared to “cover the entire sea area, from horizon to horizon . . . and it appeared as though the ship was sailing over a field of snow or gliding over the clouds”. The ship took six hours to sail through it.

These glowing seas have featured in sailor stories for centuries. The crew of the Nautilius encountered the phenomenon in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. And in 2006,  Steven Miller actually managed to recover satellite images of the very same patch seen by the crew of the SS Lima – it stretched over 15,000 square kilometres, the size of Connecticut or Yorkshire.

The glowing waters are the work of bioluminescent bacteria – microbes that can produce their own light. They are found throughout the oceans, although usually in smaller numbers than the giant bloom responsible for the SS Lima’s sighting. In many cases, they form partnerships with animals like fish and squid, taking up residence inside their hosts and paying their rent by providing light for navigation or defence.

But many glowing bacteria live freely in the open ocean, and they glow nonetheless. Creating light takes energy, and it’s not something that’s done needlessly. So why do the bacteria shine? One of the most common answers – and one that Miller proposed to explain his satellite images – is that the bacteria are screaming “Eat me!” at passing fish. A fish’s guts are full of nutrients, and it can carry bacteria across large distances. The bacteria, by turning themselves into glowing bait, get a lift and a meal.

The article goes on to explain a study that showed this in action: basically, zooplankton – a classification for small organisms that drift around in bodies of water – were given a choice of eating glowing or non-glowing bacteria, and they tended to choose the glowing bacteria. Presumably this is because the bacteria only glow when they’re grouped together, which happens when they find a tasty piece of detritus to hang onto. Glowing bacteria means there’s food around, so they’re a nice target.

As a side effect, organisms that eat glowing bacteria will sometimes end up glowing themselves, making them big targets for fish. A deadly circle of life, all so that some bacteria can hitch a ride. 

Velociraptors Hunting Like Birds

Not Exactly Rocket Science has an interesting article on the possible hunting patterns of some dinosaurs that had claws resembling the talons of big birds of prey. They may have used their claws to pin down their prey, as opposed to hacking and slashing. The article is definitely worth reading in its entirety, so go check it out if you can, but otherwise here are the highlights:

In [paleontologist Denver Fowler’s] vision, which he calls the “ripper” model, Deinonychus killed small and medium-sized prey in a similar style to a hawk or eagle dispatching on a rabbit. Deinonychus leapt onto its target and pinned it down with its full body weight. The large sickle-shaped claws dug into its victim, gripping tightly to prevent it from escaping. Then, Deinonychus leant down and tore into it with its jaws. The killer claws were neither knives nor climbing hooks; they were more like anchors.

It’s a simple idea, but a potentially important one, for it casts Deinonychus’s entire body into a new light. Fowler thinks that it flapped its large feathered arms to keep its balance while killing a struggling victim. And its feet, which were adapted for grasping prey, would have given its descendants the right shape for perching on branches. Fowler says, “It really helps to make sense of the weird anatomy of these little carnivorous dinosaurs.” …

This idea of Deinonychus sitting on top of small prey seems at odds with classic picture of this predator working in packs to bring down larger quarry. But again, modern birds show how the same grasping motions might have worked against big targets. Golden eagles can kill reindeer. They dig their talons deep into their victim’s back, holding on while the struggling reindeer widens its own wounds. Deinonychus might have used the same strategy to kill larger prey.

Tom Holtz Jr, who studies predatory dinosaurs, says, “Prey-riding is also common in the Galapagos hawk – there’s classic footage of them taking down marine iguanas much bigger than they are. They pin them down, and flap away as the iguanas take them for a ride.” Philip Currie from the University of Alberta also mentions the famous Mongolian “fighting dinosaurs” – a Velociraptor found in pitched battle with a Protoceratops. “It confirms that dromaeosaurids were seeking prey animals of their own approximate body size.” …

If Fowler is right, his model has important implications for the evolution of flight. The dromaeosaurids would have been very nearly ready for life in the trees. Their grasping feet, with opposable toes, could easily have adapted to grip branches as well as prey. Their flapping arms, used to balance themselves, could have adapted to help them fly. These animals were positively pre-adapted for life in the trees. Perhaps the graceful wings and perching feet of a blue tit got their start with bloody murder on the ground.

Proposing such a strong connection between dinosaurs and modern birds is pretty interesting; it’s useful to see how everything is related. Keep in mind though that at this point, this is only one person’s theory. 

Ants Release Airborne Poison to Paralyze Termites

Ants just got scarier. A certain type of African ant surrounds termites and sprays them with a toxin that eventually paralyzes them.

From Not Exactly Rocket Science:

C.striatula is a specialised termite-hunter. When it finds a termite, it raises its sting into the air, releasing chemicals that summon nearby nestmates. If the termite is a soldier, armed with powerful jaws, up to 15 ants can gather round. All of them stay a centimetre away from the termite, aiming their stings at it like fencers with swords outstretched. They close in, but they still never actually touch.

Termites don’t retreat – they defend their nests no matter the danger. That is a fatal mistake. After ten minutes of stand-off, the termite starts to shake. It rolls onto its back, with its legs batting the air in helpless convulsions. Within moments, it’s paralysed, and the ants finally move in and grab it.

C.striatula behaves in the same way when it finds other ants in its territory. These intruders have the good sense to flee, even if they’re much larger than C.striatula and even if they have the weight of numbers on their side.

It’s clear that the chemicals released from C.striatula’s sting do three things: they rally other workers; they repel other ants; and they paralyse termites…

Many animals have projectile weapons: some ants can spray formic acid; the  bombardier beetles squirt enemies with noxious burning chemicals; the spitting cobras spit venom; and both velvet worms and spitting spiders can spew immobilising glue.

In all these cases, there is an obvious and noticeable stream of liquid. By contrast, C.striatula’s long-range chemical weapon seems all the more sinister for its invisible nature. Only one other animal has something similar – another ant called Platythyrea conradti . It also raids termite nests. When it encounters a defending soldier, it drops into a crouch and opens its jaws. It never bites, and it doesn’t need to. Glands in its mouth release an airborne poison that paralyses the termites, in the same way that C.striatula does with its sting.

I’d love to see a video of this chemical warfare in action, but in lieu of that here’s a video from National Geographic showing an ant attack on a termite nest:

There’s a complex and fascinating world going on underneath us.

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