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UMass Lowell Lab Spinning Research on Spider Silk

UMass Lowell Professor Jessica Garb, left, in her research lab with Esperanza Rivera de Torre Photo by Edwin Aguirre
UMass Lowell Professor Jessica Garb, left, is shown in her research lab on campus with Esperanza Rivera de Torre, a Ph.D. candidate from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid Spain who worked with Garb last year. (Edwin Aguirre for UMass Lowell)

08/29/2018
Boston Globe
By Morgan Hughes

In Lowell, a city known for its pioneering textile factories during America’s Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s, researchers are looking to spiders to optimize new types of fabric.

Jessica Garb, an associate professor of biological science at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, wants to unlock what it is that makes the silk of Darwin’s bark spider so tough.

Researchers have previously studied spider silk to produce new types of fabric, but Garb said the Darwin’s bark spider has even tougher-than-average silk.

Darwin’s bark spiders spin the largest-known orb webs, and Garb and a team of researchers want to determine on a molecular level what is unique about this type of silk. Garb’s lab received a $335,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to collaborate with two other universities who have researchers that can fit all the pieces of the puzzle.

“The goal is to put all the info together so we can pinpoint what those proteins are that make dragline [silk] really tough,” she said.

The lab at the University of Akron specializes in the mechanical properties of spider silk, and the lab at the University of Vermont focuses on spider diversity and evolution.

Together, they want to figure out how the Darwin’s bark spider produces the silk and what makes it so tough. The answers have the potential to allow biotech companies to replicate it.

There’s at least a handful of startups around the world that are interested in using similar types of spider silk to make sneakers, parkas, and other products from the genetically engineered fibers, Garb said.

“I’m always excited about discovering new silk proteins,” Garb said. “Once you get hooked, it’s like a little high finding a new one, something that’s different than something that’s been found before. You get excited when you find something that’s new and interesting and you want to find out if it’s doing something important.”

Garb has been studying spiders for more than 20 years. She specializes in the molecular ingredients that are essential for “spider lifestyle,” as she calls it, such as making silk or venom.

Even with her expertise, there are some challenges to this research. First is getting the spiders. Darwin’s bark spiders are hard to find, and usually located in the rain forests of Madagascar.

“It’s not like working with E. coli or mice, where it’s very common and you can just order them in the mail,” Garb explained.

Another challenge is decoding the very long chains of proteins that make up this type of spider silk. Decoding them will allow her to pick out the genetic sequence that makes it unique.

Garb and her team of researchers at UMass Lowell — Robert Haney, a postdoctoral researcher, Molly Dawson, a graduate student, and Winny Rojas-Velez, an undergraduate biology major — already have gotten to work.

This summer, Garb partnered with UMass Lowell’s Tsongas Industrial History Center to teach children about her work. She took some kids to her lab to do DNA-extraction exercises, and took others outside to collect spiders and examine them under a microscope.

Through these programs, she connected her knowledge of silk-based textiles that come from silkworms and spiders with the city’s historic textile mills.