We probably all killed a spider Or two in the past, but what if this spider’s corpse could be redirected into something useful? Well, researchers at Rice University of Texas think they can, and they’re pioneering “microbes” by injecting dead spiders with air for use in grabbing small objects.
When Daniel Preston, a professor of mechanical engineering at Rice University, was setting up his lab, he and graduate student Faye Yap wondered why the legs of a dead spider were bent in the corner of the room. It turns out that spiders stretch their legs using hydraulic pressure, which comes from the fluid that is pumped into their legs from a central cavity, which means that when they die, their legs permanently retract. Preston and Yap wondered if they could hack this hydraulic process by injecting air into the dead spider’s legs to force them open. They found that they could, and their study on this horrific opportunity to make a biological astringent was published in advanced science on Monday.
“[Spiders] Which means spiders can pull their legs inward, but they don’t have muscles to extend them, Yap said in a video call. “The way they extend their legs is using hydraulic pressure.”
This pressure comes from the spider’s prosoma – the spider’s head, the legs of which stick to its body – sending fluid into the spider’s legs, allowing it to walk – the individual legs are controlled by opening and closing valves in the spider’s anatomy. Preston Waip and colleagues found that if they carefully inserted a syringe into a dead spider’s brosoma, they could simulate hydraulic pressure with air, extending and retracting all of the spider’s legs simultaneously. This means that the spider can be used as a handle. But why try something so annoying?
“We’re interested in using them for things like collecting samples,” Preston said. “They have intrinsic compliance because of this hydraulic or pneumatic actuation that we can apply, which helps protect fragile specimens or even other live insects, for example, if we want to collect those in the field.”
The spider’s repurposed properties are incredibly promising: The team found that the spider’s clutch can last more than 1,000 open/close cycles, and can be used to lift 130% of its body weight.
The researchers primarily used wolf spiders to work on this particular manuscript, but they believe other types of spiders could be used as well. Interestingly, Yap says the group found that spiders with greater body mass – such as the goliath spider – were only able to lift objects 1/10 of their body weight, while smaller spiders – such as jumping spiders – might be able to Lift like as much as twice your body weight.
As for how people outside the lab reacted to the project, Preston says most were supportive and even excited when they saw how effective the clutch was. However, others weren’t too happy about having spiders around.
“One of the employees working in our front office doesn’t really like spiders. “So we had to call the front desk whenever we got another delivery so we could use it on the project, and just give them a notice,” Preston said with a chuckle. The team ordered their spiders from a biological supply company, but unfortunately, some of them didn’t come back dead. Yap explained in detail: “Sometimes they are inanimate, but sometimes we have to kill them in a merciful way. So we are looking for the most humane way to kill them from literature.”
While the project may sound odd, Preston thinks it fits perfectly within the scope of his lab’s research to study soft robotics. “We’re looking at anything at the intersection of energy, matter, and fluid,” he says. “Soft robots typically use unconventional materials, things that aren’t typical hard plastic metals but instead things like hydrogels and elastomers and unique modes of operation like magnetism and light.” Preston and Yap are very interested in using this as a starting point for further research on necrotic grippers, such as figuring out how individual legs open and close.
As researchers around the world work on biology-inspired robotics, Preston, Yap and the rest of the team have hunted down and used biology itself, plucked from their lab floor. This nature-inspired creative work is clearly crazy science at its best.
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