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UMBC postdoctoral fellow Sarah Stellwagen and co-author Rebecca Renberg at the Army Research Lab have published the first-ever complete sequences of two genes that allow spiders to produce glue -- a sticky, modified version of spider silk that keeps a spider's prey stuck in its web. The findings appeared in Genes, Genomes, Genetics.

The innovative method they employed could pave the way for others to sequence more silk and glue genes, which are challenging to sequence because of their length and repetitive structure. Better understanding of these genes could move scientists closer to the next big advance in biomaterials.

Spider silk is what spider webs are made of, and it's been touted for years as the next big thing in biomaterials because of its unusual tensile strength combined with its flexibility. There are more than 45,000 known species of spiders, each of which makes between one and seven types of silk. However, despite many partial sequences, less is known about the full genetic structure of spider silk: Only about 20 complete genes have been sequenced. "Twenty pales in comparison to what's out there," Stellwagen says.

Plus, spider silk has proven tough to produce in large amounts. Spiders convert liquid blobs of silk into solid, spindly fibers in a complex process inside their bodies. Scientists can make the liquid, but "we can't replicate the process of going from liquid to solid on a large industrial scale," Stellwagen says.

Spider glue, however, is a liquid both inside and outside the spider. While the glue "does have its own challenges," Stellwagen says, that difference might make spider glue easier to produce in a lab than silk.

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Category: Science