20 Things You Didn't Know About... Spiders

How spider venom can treat erectile dysfunction, dreadlocks can cure arachnophobia, and spider silk can be used as muscles for robots.

By Rebecca Coffey|Friday, May 13, 2011

The venom of the Australian funnel-web spider can kill a person in less than an hour, and its fangs can bite right through a shoe.

But for most people, fear of spiders is a far greater problem than the spiders themselves. Researchers at the University of São Paulo have developed an improbable way to undo arachnophobia by having patients stare at pictures of “spiderlike” objects—a tripod, a carousel, a person with dreadlocks.

Quackery? Apparently not. In a 2007 study, the scientists reported a 92 percent success rate.

And there is an upside to spider bites. Take the Brazilian wandering spider, Phoneutria nigriventer, whose venom causes painful penile erections that last for many hours (that’s the bad news).

The good news: The responsible toxin could yield new treatments for erectile dysfunction.

The venom of the South American tarantula Grammostola spatulata might be used to treat atrial fibrillation. It contains a peptide that can calm an irregular heartbeat brought on by stress.

Back in Australia, Glenn King at the University of Queensland is studying the Blue Mountains funnel-web spider (Hadronyche versuta) with an eye toward developing eco-friendly pesticides. Proteins in this spider’s venom target the nervous system of insects but leave humans unharmed.

First, though, there’s the unpleasant matter of getting the venom. Workers at the Spider Pharm in Yarnell, Arizona, “milk” up to 1,000 spiders a day.

The bugs are anesthetized with carbon dioxide, then zapped with electricity, which makes them release venom into minuscule glass capillaries connected to their fangs.

11  Blackledge envisions spider silk someday being used to operate miniature robotic devices and drug delivery systems.

12  Unlike many sticky things, the glue of orbed web spiders gets stronger in the presence of water, polymer scientists working with Blackledge have discovered, suggesting that it might prove a useful adhesive for surgery or for underwater engineering.

13  Spider-goat, Spider-goat, does whatever a spider can: By manipulating genes, molecular biologists at the University of Wyoming have gotten goats to produce milk containing the protein that makes up spider silk (video).

14  Next, scientists aim to introduce the silk gene into alfalfa, which is far more efficient to mass produce and, frankly, less creepy.

15  Safe sex: The male nursery web spider (Pisaura mirabilis) will bring a silk-wrapped insect to a female prior to mating so she will eat the gift—instead of him.

16  Safer sex: The funnel-web spider Agelenopsis aperta has a different approach, putting the female into a cataleptic state before mating so she won’t cannibalize him.

17  Scientists at Radford University in Virginia say the A. aperta male can disable the female from 4.5 centimeters (about 2 inches), suggesting he maybe deploying a gas to knock out the femme fatale.

19  Others dispense with the killing entirely. The jumping spider Bagheera kiplingi—named in the 1800s after the panther in Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book—is mostly a vegetarian.

20  Don’t want one of these things jumping in your salad? Steven Kutcher, spider wrangler on the film Arachnophobia, says a dusting of talcum powder or a spritz of Lemon Pledge makes a tabletop or other flat surface too slippery for the critters to get any traction.

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