Learning the Ropes from the Pros: Scientists Learning about Adhesives by Studying Spiders

spider web adhesive tapeIf you hear the word “spiders”, we’ll pardon you if the first images that creep into your head have something to do with the terrifying, terrible B-movies you saw as a child on UHF stations late at night. We’ll also understand completely if your mind wanders back to the most recent time you stumbled across a spider in your bathroom (and a completely harmless, common, household spider at that) and promptly stamped it with your Nike sneaker.

But if you are one amongst a team of biologists and researchers at the U. of Akron in Ohio, you might be thinking about another, more strategic use for these garden-variety pests. The fact is, common household spiders spin webs to capture their prey. These webs contain adhesive properties which, quite remarkably, have both strong and weak adhesive qualities – all at once. How is this even possible? As it turns out, it’s all in the way a spider constructs its web. Spiders spin their webs using strong adhesives when “anchoring” their webs to ceilings or to vertical surfaces. That way, if a fly or a mosquito or a wasp comes bashing along at high speed into the web, the baseline adhesives remain firm even if the web jolts from the force of the impact. The insect, thence, is trapped. On the other hand, if an ant or a potato bug crawls on by a spider’s web on the ground, the adhesive is spun deliberately weak, so that it “snaps back” upon being triggered, and catapults the unlucky bug into the selfsame web.

But still you’re asking, what’s the practical, human point of this study? What are the technological implications? Well, as it turns out, they could prove incredibly useful. Infants in neonatal intensive care units at hospitals often need adhesive tape for monitoring instruments attached to their skin. Obviously, a neonatal infant’s skin is extremely delicate. And if there’s a necessity for the tape to be placed along an infant’s joint, there’s even the disturbing risk of mobility loss in the infant’s joint. Since neonatal tape needs to be replaced frequently, the risk of skin damage from adhesives is that much more possible. But by using adhesive material based on studying spider-webs, doctors and nurses have now developed a tape that is highly adhesive on the inside and easily removable on the outside.

One question remains: how many bugs had to die for science to learn this? We at Converters can only guess faintly at the possible quadrillions of casualties. We’re just glad our babies are that much safer.

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