Science and Engineering in Derby and Derbyshire
This guest post is from Dr Ian Turner, mild mannered biologist by day, comic book hero in training by night…
I want to be Spiderman!!!
By Dr. Ian Turner aka a wannabe Spiderman
As a young boy I flicked through my copies of the Amazing Spiderman comic and looked forward to Saturdays when I could watch Spiderman and his Amazing Friends on TV and run around the house firing pretend spider webs from my fingertips like Spidey, shooting ice bolts to make a mobile ice platform just like Iceman and pretending the gorgeous Firestar was just behind me.
Now I am grown up (in physical age at least) and still a fan of comics (or graphic novels as grown-ups like to call them) I have been reflecting on my comic books choices. I guess my love of Spidey and his friends is in part responsible for my career path into science! I mean Spiderman’s alias was a geeky scientist who was bitten by a radioactive spider, the Incredible Hulk was a geeky scientist hit by a dose of gamma rays and Mr Fantastic was a less geeky scientist who was bombarded by cosmic radiation in Space… Not only do these heroes have an amazing set of superpowers they all seemed to bag a beautiful girlfriend or wife (Mary Jane Watson, Betty Banner and Susan Storm).
Sadly after about thirteen years studying, researching and teaching science I have yet to have a scientific accident, or be attacked by a radioactive animal, which induced science defying changes in my DNA and left me with ability to fly, stretch my arms five times their normal length or turn green when angry. I have found my Mary Jane (minus the red hair) but should I give up on my pipe dream to become Spiderman, and sell my costume to a party hire store? Or is there still hope….
Hope does indeed exist! In the form of genetic engineering! One of Spiderman’s most famous powers his is ability to make and fire spider web from his wrists (let’s not open the natural web production in the recent film releases versus the artificial ones in the comic books debate). It is only natural to wonder if genetic engineering would allow us the possibility of cutting the silk gene from a spider and splicing it into the genome of another animal or human?
Before we fully explore the possibility, I am presuming not everybody is a geeky scientist like me and it may be useful to let you know exactly what genetic engineering is… Genetic engineering (GE for short) is about scientists altering the ‘recipes’ for making life. The recipe for humans is found in a molecule called DNA which is incredibly long, and because of its size is broken into small units called genes. Each of these genes has a particular role… For example you will have a gene (or genes) that are responsible for your hair colour, others that help with production of your red blood cells (Erythrocytes for the geeky amongst you) etc… GE allows us to identify what genes ‘do what’ in the human and animal ‘recipe’ and to use a pair of molecular scissors to cut them out and put them inside a different animal.
So now we know that GE is we need to know if the gene for spider web has been discovered. Well it has and scientists have managed to effectively incorporate the spider silk gene into other organisms, but before we show how I guess we should ask why…The reason is that spider silk is both very strong and elastic, spider silk fibres could have several medical uses, such as for making artificial ligaments and tendons, for eye sutures, and for jaw repair. The silk could also have applications in bulletproof vests and improved car airbags. This is all well and good I hear you say but can we swing from a building using spider silk? And could we stop a car racing away from a robbery in our spider web?
Well who knows, but different spiders produce different types of silk, which can be sticky, dry or stretchy. Silk is so strong that some spiders use it for traveling. With one end attached to a surface such as a tree branch, the spider will hang onto the end and let the wind carry it away… Just like Spiderman! This is called ‘ballooning’ and can take the spider many kilometres. As to stopping a car, that would take a lot of spiders! But an amazing fact if true is that to stop a 180,000 kg Boeing-747 flying 1080 km/h (300 m/s) in 300 meters one needs 1,440,000 million Araneus diadematus spiders to make a one kilometre long thread with a diameter of 21.4 cm. It would not be so enjoyable for the passengers though, as if the plane comes to a standstill they would all be thrown forward because of deceleration of 150 m/s2 (15 g). I would love to apply for some funding to check that out…
Now we know why let go back to the how… I would love to tell you that humans with Spider Silk genes are walking the street, sadly not! There’s a host of ethical concerns.. .but we have GE animals to receive the gene… I can already here you all singing
“Spider Pig! Spider Pig! Does whatever a spider pig does! can he swing from a web? No he can’t.. He’s a pig!.. Look out!.. Here comes the spider pig!!”
But sadly pigs were not the animals of choice for spider silk genes, goats were…”Spidergoat, Spidergoat”….. Scientists have successfully made GE goats that produce spider silk genes. These goats are not eight legged or climbing up and down the walls…they look like well… goats! The only difference being that they excrete spider silk in their milk, this can be then collected and purified into spider silk to be used for commercial purposes. In fact there are products already available using this silk including a new type of bullet proof clothing…. Scientists are currently looking at genetically engineering the alfalfa plant to produce the spider silk…can’t see that stopping any crime in the near future!
So my time to become a superhero may have passed, after all how many superheroes wear slippers?! But GE offers a glimmer of hope for future Spidey wannabes!