The Amazing Spider Curator

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Cheryl Hayashi, who joined the Museum this year as a curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology, professor in the Richard Gilder Graduate School, and the Leon Hess Director of Comparative Biology Research, is one of the world’s top experts on spider silk.

 

Extreme closeup of Cheryl Hayashi smiling as she looks at a spider on a web, inches from her face.

Courtesy of Carlos Puma


We recently sat down with Dr. Hayashi, who is also the new director of the Museum's Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics, to talk about how she began studying spiders, how her research has changed over the years, and why—and where—spider silk may be coming soon to a retail aisle near you. See what the Museum’s newest scientist has to say about some of the more astonishing aspects of arachnid anatomy in the video below, too.

 


When did you first become interested in studying spiders?

As an undergraduate in college, I was very fortunate to work with a professor who allowed me to feed her colony of animals. It turned out those animals were spiders. And that was really fun. I would shake or weave flies right into their webs, so they could find the food later, or I would actually hand-feed flies to them. Interacting with them in that way changed my life. I started noticing thingsabout these organisms that had never occurred to me before.

What do you like most about spiders?

They are a great system for asking questions about diversity and evolution. How they are related to each other is a big puzzle.

And what’s the focus of your research?

I study the characteristics of spider silks, as well as the relationship between spider genomes and their ability to make silks. And looking at that relationship provides information about how we might be able to harness spider silks for human applications.

Most of us don’t think much of brushing away a cobweb. What is it that makes spider silk so impressive?

Spider silk has been evolving for hundreds of millions of years, so natural selection has fine-tuned those molecules to the point that they can achieve incredible feats with a very minimal amount of material. That’s largely because spider silks are made of protein, and proteins are expensive for organisms to make. Spiders have evolved a system that allows them to catch large prey, produce webs that persist in wind and rain over long periods of time, and accomplish many other useful things very, very economically.

How has technology changed the way you work?

This is a really exciting time to be a biologist because of the revolution that’s been going on in DNA sequencing and DNA analysis technology, which lets us very easily decipher the genetic code of every organism. For much of my career, it would take me a lot of long hours in the lab to identify a single gene from a single spider. With new genomic technologies, I can now catalog all the genes of a single spider, and I can do that for multiple species. So now, we can compare the genomes of different spiders, and we can look at the qualities of the silks those species produce, and we can ask how the genome affects the silk. What changes to a genome, for instance, make for a better dragline silk? That’s the kind of question it wasn’t even possible to ask before this technology.

How do the Museum’s collections help you ask those questions?

Well, thanks to some of these new techniques, we can extract proteins and genetic materials from these specimens, which gives us a great window into the past. But it’s also important to maintain these specimens for tomorrow’s researchers. When people started making collections here, they had no idea what we’d be able to do with them using genomic sequencing and CT scanners. By the same token, we can’t envision all the technologies people will be using to explore these collections in the future!

You mentioned the potential for human application of spider silks. What might some of those applications look like?

Any application that you can think of that would benefit from a green material that is lightweight, incredibly tough, strong, and can stretch would benefit from spider silk. Textiles are an obvious match, but it could also be used in making components for vehicles like planes and spacecraft. There are also biomedical applications. Studies have shown we don’t generally have immune reactions to spider silk, so it could play a role in medical implants as well.

In the course of our conversation, Hayashi also shared a few spectacular spider facts. We’ve included some of our favorites as a bonus for readers below!

Silk For Yards

A cooperative spider can produce dozens of yards of silk per day, says Hayashi. But that cooperation is dependent on factors like how well a spider has been fed—and whether it feels like being a team player that day. 

Live Long and Prosper

Unlike Charlotte A. Cavatica, some spiders are incredibly long-lived, says Hayashi. “For instance, many tarantulas can live longer than a dog.”

 

A large, fuzzy tarantula walks across a sandy area.

Mexican redknee tarantula, Brachypelma smithi.

Courtesy of George Chernilevsky/Wikimedia Commons


They’re afraid of you, too

“Spiders are very sensitive animals with all these very fine sensory hairs, and they can detect any motion in vibration or air current,” says Hayashi. “They’re very easily spooked. We actually have to sneak up on black widows to catch them.”

A version of the story originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.