Tag Archives: nature
Spider-Man is one of the most popular superheroes of all time. It’s a bit surprising given that one of the more common phobias is arachnophobia—a debilitating fear of spiders.
Perhaps more fantastical is that young Peter Parker, a brainy high school science nerd, seemingly developed overnight the famous web-shooters and the synthetic spider silk that he uses to swing across the cityscape like Tarzan through the jungle.
That’s because scientists have been trying for decades to replicate spider silk, a material that is five times stronger than steel, among its many superpowers. In recent years, researchers have been untangling the protein-based fiber’s structure down to the molecular level, leading to new insights and new potential for eventual commercial uses.
The applications for such a material seem near endless. There’s the more futuristic visions, like enabling robotic “muscles” for human-like movement or ensnaring real-life villains with a Spider-Man-like web. Near-term applications could include the biomedical industry, such as bandages and adhesives, and as a replacement textile for everything from rope to seat belts to parachutes.
Spinning Synthetic Spider Silk
Randy Lewis has been studying the properties of spider silk and developing methods for producing it synthetically for more than three decades. In the 1990s, his research team was behind cloning the first spider silk gene, as well as the first to identify and sequence the proteins that make up the six different silks that web slingers make. Each has different mechanical properties.
“So our thought process was that you could take that information and begin to to understand what made them strong and what makes them stretchy, and why some are are very stretchy and some are not stretchy at all, and some are stronger and some are weaker,” explained Lewis, a biology professor at Utah State University and director of the Synthetic Spider Silk Lab, in an interview with Singularity Hub.
Spiders are naturally territorial and cannibalistic, so any intention to farm silk naturally would likely end in an orgy of arachnid violence. Instead, Lewis and company have genetically modified different organisms to produce spider silk synthetically, including inserting a couple of web-making genes into the genetic code of goats. The goats’ milk contains spider silk proteins.
The lab also produces synthetic spider silk through a fermentation process not entirely dissimilar to brewing beer, but using genetically modified bacteria to make the desired spider silk proteins. A similar technique has been used for years to make a key enzyme in cheese production. More recently, companies are using transgenic bacteria to make meat and milk proteins, entirely bypassing animals in the process.
The same fermentation technology is used by a chic startup called Bolt Threads outside of San Francisco that has raised more than $200 million for fashionable fibers made out of synthetic spider silk it calls Microsilk. (The company is also developing a second leather-like material, Mylo, using the underground root structure of mushrooms known as mycelium.)
Lewis’ lab also uses transgenic silkworms to produce a kind of composite material made up of the domesticated insect’s own silk proteins and those of spider silk. “Those have some fairly impressive properties,” Lewis said.
The researchers are even experimenting with genetically modified alfalfa. One of the big advantages there is that once the spider silk protein has been extracted, the remaining protein could be sold as livestock feed. “That would bring the cost of spider silk protein production down significantly,” Lewis said.
Building a Better Web
Producing synthetic spider silk isn’t the problem, according to Lewis, but the ability to do it at scale commercially remains a sticking point.
Another challenge is “weaving” the synthetic spider silk into usable products that can take advantage of the material’s marvelous properties.
“It is possible to make silk proteins synthetically, but it is very hard to assemble the individual proteins into a fiber or other material forms,” said Markus Buehler, head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at MIT, in an email to Singularity Hub. “The spider has a complex spinning duct in which silk proteins are exposed to physical forces, chemical gradients, the combination of which generates the assembly of molecules that leads to silk fibers.”
Buehler recently co-authored a paper in the journal Science Advances that found dragline spider silk exhibits different properties in response to changes in humidity that could eventually have applications in robotics.
Specifically, spider silk suddenly contracts and twists above a certain level of relative humidity, exerting enough force to “potentially be competitive with other materials being explored as actuators—devices that move to perform some activity such as controlling a valve,” according to a press release.
Studying Spider Silk Up Close
Recent studies at the molecular level are helping scientists learn more about the unique properties of spider silk, which may help researchers develop materials with extraordinary capabilities.
For example, scientists at Arizona State University used magnetic resonance tools and other instruments to image the abdomen of a black widow spider. They produced what they called the first molecular-level model of spider silk protein fiber formation, providing insights on the nanoparticle structure. The research was published last October in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
A cross section of the abdomen of a black widow (Latrodectus Hesperus) spider used in this study at Arizona State University. Image Credit: Samrat Amin.
Also in 2018, a study presented in Nature Communications described a sort of molecular clamp that binds the silk protein building blocks, which are called spidroins. The researchers observed for the first time that the clamp self-assembles in a two-step process, contributing to the extensibility, or stretchiness, of spider silk.
Another team put the spider silk of a brown recluse under an atomic force microscope, discovering that each strand, already 1,000 times thinner than a human hair, is made up of thousands of nanostrands. That helps explain its extraordinary tensile strength, though technique is also a factor, as the brown recluse uses a special looping method to reinforce its silk strands. The study also appeared last year in the journal ACS Macro Letters.
Making Spider Silk Stick
Buehler said his team is now trying to develop better and faster predictive methods to design silk proteins using artificial intelligence.
“These new methods allow us to generate new protein designs that do not naturally exist and which can be explored to optimize certain desirable properties like torsional actuation, strength, bioactivity—for example, tissue engineering—and others,” he said.
Meanwhile, Lewis’ lab has discovered a method that allows it to solubilize spider silk protein in what is essentially a water-based solution, eschewing acids or other toxic compounds that are normally used in the process.
That enables the researchers to develop materials beyond fiber, including adhesives that “are better than an awful lot of the current commercial adhesives,” Lewis said, as well as coatings that could be used to dampen vibrations, for example.
“We’re making gels for various kinds of of tissue regeneration, as well as drug delivery, and things like that,” he added. “So we’ve expanded the use profile from something beyond fibers to something that is a much more extensive portfolio of possible kinds of materials.”
And, yes, there’s even designs at the Synthetic Spider Silk Lab for developing a Spider-Man web-slinger material. The US Navy is interested in non-destructive ways of disabling an enemy vessel, such as fouling its propeller. The project also includes producing synthetic proteins from the hagfish, an eel-like critter that exudes a gelatinous slime when threatened.
Lewis said that while the potential for spider silk is certainly headline-grabbing, he cautioned that much of the hype is not focused on the unique mechanical properties that could lead to advances in healthcare and other industries.
“We want to see spider silk out there because it’s a unique material, not because it’s got marketing appeal,” he said.
Image Credit: mycteria / Shutterstock.com Continue reading
More often than not, we fall into the trap of trying to predict and anticipate the future, forgetting that the future is up to us to envision and create. In the words of Buckminster Fuller, “We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims.”
But how, exactly, do we create a “good” future? What does such a future look like to begin with?
In Future Consciousness: The Path to Purposeful Evolution, Tom Lombardo analytically deconstructs how we can flourish in the flow of evolution and create a prosperous future for humanity. Scientifically informed, the books taps into themes that are constructive and profound, from both eastern and western philosophies.
As the executive director of the Center for Future Consciousness and an executive board member and fellow of the World Futures Studies Federation, Lombardo has dedicated his life and career to studying how we can create a “realistic, constructive, and ethical future.”
In a conversation with Singularity Hub, Lombardo discussed purposeful evolution, ethical use of technology, and the power of optimism.
Raya Bidshahri: Tell me more about the title of your book. What is future consciousness and what role does it play in what you call purposeful evolution?
Tom Lombardo: Humans have the unique capacity to purposefully evolve themselves because they possess future consciousness. Future consciousness contains all of the cognitive, motivational, and emotional aspects of the human mind that pertain to the future. It’s because we can imagine and think about the future that we can manipulate and direct our future evolution purposefully. Future consciousness empowers us to become self-responsible in our own evolutionary future. This is a jump in the process of evolution itself.
RB: In several places in the book, you discuss the importance of various eastern philosophies. What can we learn from the east that is often missing from western models?
TL: The key idea in the east that I have been intrigued by for decades is the Taoist Yin Yang, which is the idea that reality should be conceptualized as interdependent reciprocities.
In the west we think dualistically, or we attempt to think in terms of one end of the duality to the exclusion of the other, such as whole versus parts or consciousness versus physical matter. Yin Yang thinking is seeing how both sides of a “duality,” even though they appear to be opposites, are interdependent; you can’t have one without the other. You can’t have order without chaos, consciousness without the physical world, individuals without the whole, humanity without technology, and vice versa for all these complementary pairs.
RB: You talk about the importance of chaos and destruction in the trajectory of human progress. In your own words, “Creativity frequently involves destruction as a prelude to the emergence of some new reality.” Why is this an important principle for readers to keep in mind, especially in the context of today’s world?
TL: In order for there to be progress, there often has to be a disintegration of aspects of the old. Although progress and evolution involve a process of building up, growth isn’t entirely cumulative; it’s also transformative. Things fall apart and come back together again.
Throughout history, we have seen a transformation of what are the most dominant human professions or vocations. At some point, almost everybody worked in agriculture, but most of those agricultural activities were replaced by machines, and a lot of people moved over to industry. Now we’re seeing that jobs and functions are increasingly automated in industry, and humans are being pushed into vocations that involve higher cognitive and artistic skills, services, information technology, and so on.
RB: You raise valid concerns about the dark side of technological progress, especially when it’s combined with mass consumerism, materialism, and anti-intellectualism. How do we counter these destructive forces as we shape the future of humanity?
TL: We can counter such forces by always thoughtfully considering how our technologies are affecting the ongoing purposeful evolution of our conscious minds, bodies, and societies. We should ask ourselves what are the ethical values that are being served by the development of various technologies.
For example, we often hear the criticism that technologies that are driven by pure capitalism degrade human life and only benefit the few people who invented and market them. So we need to also think about what good these new technologies can serve. It’s what I mean when I talk about the “wise cyborg.” A wise cyborg is somebody who uses technology to serve wisdom, or values connected with wisdom.
RB: Creating an ideal future isn’t just about progress in technology, but also progress in morality. How we do decide what a “good” future is? What are some philosophical tools we can use to determine a code of ethics that is as objective as possible?
TL: Let’s keep in mind that ethics will always have some level of subjectivity. That being said, the way to determine a good future is to base it on the best theory of reality that we have, which is that we are evolutionary beings in an evolutionary universe and we are interdependent with everything else in that universe. Our ethics should acknowledge that we are fluid and interactive.
Hence, the “good” can’t be something static, and it can’t be something that pertains to me and not everybody else. It can’t be something that only applies to humans and ignores all other life on Earth, and it must be a mode of change rather than something stable.
RB: You present a consciousness-centered approach to creating a good future for humanity. What are some of the values we should develop in order to create a prosperous future?
TL: A sense of self-responsibility for the future is critical. This means realizing that the “good future” is something we have to take upon ourselves to create; we can’t let something or somebody else do that. We need to feel responsible both for our own futures and for the future around us.
Another one is going to be an informed and hopeful optimism about the future, because both optimism and pessimism have self-fulfilling prophecy effects. If you hope for the best, you are more likely to look deeply into your reality and increase the chance of it coming out that way. In fact, all of the positive emotions that have to do with future consciousness actually make people more intelligent and creative.
Some other important character virtues are discipline and tenacity, deep purpose, the love of learning and thinking, and creativity.
RB: Are you optimistic about the future? If so, what informs your optimism?
I justify my optimism the same way that I have seen Ray Kurzweil, Peter Diamandis, Kevin Kelly, and Steven Pinker justify theirs. If we look at the history of human civilization and even the history of nature, we see a progressive motion forward toward greater complexity and even greater intelligence. There’s lots of ups and downs, and catastrophes along the way, but the facts of nature and human history support the long-term expectation of continued evolution into the future.
You don’t have to be unrealistic to be optimistic. It’s also, psychologically, the more empowering position. That’s the position we should take if we want to maximize the chances of our individual or collective reality turning out better.
A lot of pessimists are pessimistic because they’re afraid of the future. There are lots of reasons to be afraid, but all in all, fear disempowers, whereas hope empowers.
Image Credit: Quick Shot / Shutterstock.com
We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. Continue reading