Araneid Phylogeny and Evolution of Spider Silk Phenotypes
This project will have three primary broader impacts; 1) facilitating biotechnological exploitation of spider silks, 2) mentoring of underrepresented students in science, and 3) contributing to public scientific literacy. The extreme performance of spider silk makes it a desirable model for the development of biomimetic superfibers and fabrics. This project will demonstrate how web shape can be used by bioprospectors as an indicator for spiders that spin mechanically unusual silks. It will also determine the degree to which different mechanical properties of silks can change independently of one another. This knowledge is essential for efforts to bioengineer recombinant spider silk for customized applications that require unique combinations of strength and stretchiness. Undergraduates will be actively involved in basic scientific research each year of this project through the development and completion of independent projects. These projects will relate to web evolution and silk mechanics and some of these students will even participate in field research excursions to Africa and South America, where they will gain exposure to biodiversity related research and to new cultures. This is particularly relevant, because U Akron students are predominately from heavily populated northeastern Ohio and a majority of biology students are female, with more than 30% from under-represented minority ethnic groups. Many of these students have not been exposed to basic scientific research or to career possibilities in the sciences. Finally, the investigators will use the mediaís interest in spider webs and silk to enhance the publicís knowledge of biodiversity and the often-misunderstood process of evolution. They will also use the research to introduce high school students to the relationship between basic scientific research and industry through established summer internship programs at U Akron.