Over the centuries, spider extracts have been used as a folk treatment for everything from bubonic plague to bleeding gums, with generally dubious results. But recent experiments show scientists are having rather better success in tapping the power of arachnid alchemy.
At the State University of New York at Buffalo, biophysicists Fred Sachs and Thomas Suchyna discovered that a protein in the venom of the Chile Rose tarantula could prevent deaths from heart attacks. The protein blocks the action of stretch-activated channels, pores in cell membranes that respond to touch, muscle contraction, and blood pressure. During a heart attack, these channels open and unleash chemical signals that disrupt the rhythm of the heart. Often the resulting fibrillation not the initial attack is what kills. The spider venom protein might help prevent this lethal fibrillation.
Meanwhile, at the University of Connecticut, biochemist Glenn King is studying chemicals from the Australian funnel-web spider. His aim is not to heal but to kill insects, that is. He's searching for alternatives to current pesticides, which can linger in soil and poison animals. King found a component in the funnel-web spider's venom that is deadly to cockroaches, crickets, and fruit-flies, but harmless to lab rats. Eventually he aims to create an engineered virus that produces its own version of the spider venom and infects only specific pests, such as the cotton bollworm. "I'd like to stop the accidental killing of species that aren't the targeted pest, including other insects, birds, and fish," says King.