Biology Expert Spins Stories of Spider Silk, Venom and Evolution

Jessica Garb of UMass Lowell speaks about spider evolution

Jessica Garb of UMass Lowell speaks about spider evolution

Reported by Amanda Spiller ’17

Biology enthusiasts of all ages filed into Druckenmiller Hall on Oct. 3 to learn about spiders and evolution from Jessica Garb, professor of biological sciences at University of Massachusetts Lowell. Garb spoke of her research on spider silk and venom, two biomaterials that enable her to study evolution through comparative genomics.

“Spiders are an enormously diverse group of species,” said Garb, who isolates and analyzes polypeptides of silk and venom from different species. By comparing these protein segments, which vary in length and amino acid composition, she can begin to determine the complex evolutionary relationships between spider groups.  “Diversity at a molecular level parallels diversity at an ecological level,” Garb said.

The task is no mean feat, with more than 4 million unique proteins seen in spider venom alone. Silk proteins, called spidroins, are equally intricate (Garb’s study used spidroins from tubuliform silk, the silk used to construct egg cases). Bowdoin Senior Wai Srifa, a biochemistry major, noted that some of Garb’s laboratory techniques were similar to those used in the Bowdoin biology department.  “It’s nice to see what we’re learning about in a different context,” Srifa said.

Garb’s talk made it clear that given the more than 40,000 spider species inhabiting our planet, we have much to learn about these creepy crawlers — and much to learn from them. For instance, Garb’s evolutionary research facilitates discovery of spider toxins, both helpful and harmful, that can have medical significance for humans.

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