481px-Nephila_edulis_front_Toby Hudson_CC_by_SA

Nephila edulis. Photo by Toby Hudson, CC-by-SA

The Guardian recently published an interview with Oxford professor and spider researcher, Fritz Vollrath. At the beginning of the interview, there’s a quote that reveals a lot about the man and the spiders he studies. When asked how he first got interested in spiders and their silk Vollrath responded:

“The strange thing to me was always the question of why scientists were not more interested in them. I mean, here is a creature which, according to its size, can build from its own body a structure on the scale of a football pitch overnight, every night, and can catch the equivalent of an aeroplane in it. Why would you not want to study how it did that?”

The article is a fascinating story of the man, the spider, the silk, biomimicry, and bioutilization. A 14-minute video accompanies the article with illustrations and discussions of the chemistry of spider silk. At the end of the article there’s a helpful graphic showing the silk glands and their various uses.

This article and video provide a great start for a class discussion about the difference between biomimicry (mimicking the chemical recipe and the spider’s method for producing the silk) and bioutilization (genetic engineering a goat or having bacteria create the silk). What are the advantages and disadvantages of each approach? What are the ethical implications of the goat approach?

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