PBS' 'Nature' seeks answers to mysteries of spider silk in UA labs


"Nature," PBS' 11-time Emmy-winning program, which broadcasts weekly journeys through Earth's natural wonders, filmed this week in the labs of University of Akron professor and evolutionary biologist Todd Blackledge, which are home to his Darwin's bark spiders.

PBS field producer Mariah Wilson and videographer Mark Carroll were on campus to film a segment for "Nature" called "Animal Architecture." The episode featuring Blackledge will focus on "things that animals build. Nests, burrows, and yes, spider webs," Wilson said.

Dr. Todd Blackledge observes the web-building skills of a Darwin spider.

"Nature" was intrigued by the architecture of the Darwin's bark spider because it makes one of the largest known webs, often suspending giant webs across rivers and lakes in their natural habitat of Madagascar. That led Wilson and Carroll to Blackledge, whose world-renowned research unlocks the mysteries of how these small creatures spin their large webs, using silk that's tougher than any known biological substance. Blackledge also is interested in helping to develop these materials for use in applications from ligament repair to flexible electronics.

"For this episode, we were interested in how they build their homes and how these natural activities affect the animals' behavior," Wilson said. "We came to The University of Akron to add depth to our story by featuring scientists who are doing spider silk research, and what researchers like Professor Blackledge are finding out about the natural web-spinning process and how it translates into possible manmade materials."

What they saw during filming in Blackledge's lab, Wilson points out, was "cool" and "unexpected."

"We got some unexpected and very cool visuals of the spider in Todd's lab and actually were able to see through the microscope exactly how she spins her incredible web," Wilson said of a female Darwin's bark spider.

Four years ago, Blackledge, Leuchtag Endowed Chair and associate professor of biology and integrated bioscience, and research colleagues from Puerto Rico and Slovenia revealed the new spider species from Madagascar and its incredibly expansive web. The scientists say these spiders achieve this feat by using the toughest, most energy-absorbent silk ever discovered, stronger than any other known biological material and most manmade varieties.

In 2010, the discovery of the Darwin's bark spider by Blackledge and his colleagues was named by Time Magazine as one of the world's top 10 new species research.

University Communications and Marketing will notify campus when the program is scheduled to air. 

Media contact: Laura Massie, 330-972-6476 or massie1@uakron.edu.