This spider's bite is dangerous, but local scientists say studying its steely silk could save lives

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Posted at 1:16 PM, Jul 15, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-17 06:35:51-04

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. - In comics and the movies, they're strong enough to swing a grown man from building to building...

In the science world, spider webs are the ultimate 'what if?'

To Hannes Schniepp, a professor in the Applied Sciences department at William & Mary, the potential real-world uses of spider silk are endlessly fascinating.

”Maybe one day this could be in a bulletproof vest or the tire of a car," he tells News 3 in a Zoom call from a trip to Austria.

Schniepp has been studying spider silk for over a decade. Back home, graduate students Dinidu Perera and Ben Skopic are holding down the fort in his lab.


"To make something artificially, we need to have a really good understanding of the natural material and that's what we do in our lab," said Perera.

Inside the lab — 160 brown recluse spiders; one of a handful whose venomous bite is actually harmful to humans. Skopic is quick to come to their defense.

“A healthy person, if they got bit, it would be a bug bite. It would probably be a bad bug bite but would not progress much more beyond that," he said before adding, "...they say if you start to feel chest pain, then that’s when you want to go to the hospital."

Schniepp says his team studies recluse silk because of its flat, scotch tape-like shape, as opposed to cylindrical like many other spider species.

Their work exploring the silk's nanostructure, particularly the binding strength, was just published in the science journal, Small.

A graphic showing how closely the team at William & Mary is looking at the nanostructure of spider silk.

Perera says the technique for this part of the research has the potential to save lives through other uses, like exploring human cells, "...and tell if a person has cancer or not at the very early stage of the disease," he said. ”It’s definitely possible.”

While the research is long-term, often spider lives aren't beyond a few years, but Schniepp and his team are breeding more. The good news is, outside of this lab, a person isn't likely to come across a brown recluse around the area.

If they do, the spider lives up to its name...and often hides.

Click HERE for more information about Schniepp's research.