Friday, 28 November 2014

Interview : Dr Sara Goodacre on Spiders

NSB was hugely chuffed to have the opportunity recently to interview Dr Sara Goodacre, who is an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Medicine & Health Sciences at the University of Nottingham. The interview was about about Spiders and the UoN Spider lab. Below is a summary of the best bits of the talk, together with some added linkage. Enjoy!....

Q: How did you get interested in Biology.
Sara commented that she had looked back at her University application forms and found that she had simply stated "I've always been interested in Biology", adding that "it was just this underlying fascination with the world around me and I couldn't imagine having done anything else and I am so pleased that I actually ended up making it into a job...I find it endlessly fascinating and it was my favourite subject at school!"

Sara added that "I actually found maths a bit easier, in biology you pick up layers of knowledge, a bit like an onion..and you never finish learning, whereas maths was sort of neater in my head, you could reach a solution to a problem"

Biology is like a box of onions,
you never know what you are going to get
Q: Earlier in your career, you were a “research fellow” - What does that mean?
Sara explained that, often a persons research path would start with obtaining a doctorate and then involve a few years of being part of a research team - during this time one would gain experience and also begin to understand what areas of research one found most interesting. Grant applications might also start to be made during this time, thus building up experience of this aspect of academic study.

With some experience under the belt, it might then possible to apply to become a research fellow, which would mean being primarily involved in running one or more research programmes, without having to do much teaching. This allows nearly all the researchers time to go towards understanding the department and getting the lab or other academic unit focus up and running. In Sara's case, the jump from researcher to research fellow involved responding to an advert from the UoN asking for lab proposals and having to convince the UoN that the Spider Lab was the right move and that Sara was the right person to run it! Amongst much else, this involved proposing research projects that were in the window between impossible and already-being-done-elsewhere.

Students at the University of Bologna in the 15th century,
some of the first research fellows amongst them?
Q: What does the Spider Lab at UoN do?
"I use it to study spiders to answer questions about why the world around us is the way it is. So, for example, I look at spiders that have different colour answer questions about why do you get a number of different types within a species, why don't you get more, why don't you have fewer? And if we scroll forward 10,000years, a million years, would they all still be here? If so, why? and if not, why not? These types of fundamental questions are quite hard to study in people and in a lot of other things but in spiders you can often find very good species that you can study, that you can keep in the lab, that can help you work out why the world is the way it is."

"Spiders are particularly good [compared to fruit flies etc] because they also are useful in things like controlling pests. Your average Money Spider for example, will eat 20 fruit flies a week"

Sara also explained that understanding the behaviour of spiders might unlock some of the secrets of how they make their many different types of silk, which is of interest as researchers would like to be able to manufacture a synthetic version of this wonderful material rather that having to rely on, inevitably rather small, spiders to produce it (info on synthetic silk technologies and properties here)

Single filament of synthetic spider silk
Q: Could you give a recap of your comments (here) regarding False Widows Spiders in the UK.
Sara explained that she had been asked by a number of people to respond on whether False Widow spiders could actually harm people. Sara emphasised that the first place to look for answers was in the evidence provided by the available published science - an approach that should be used for many questions, not just in biology. In this case the evidence was "an absolute unequivocal 'NO', we shouldn't be worried about them at all".

Sara had looked at studies of people who had been bitten by False Widow Spiders (and closely related species). What Sara found was that, in the very few cases reported in the UK and France, the symptoms had appeared straight away, had been similar to those of a bee sting and had disappeared after a few hours. Although not a medic (and having access only to the media report, not the actual medical records), Sara suspected that the wounds described in recent media articles, which had appeared some hours, days or weeks after the alleged spider bite, may have been due to subsequent infection rather than the bite itself.

Sara continued by pointing out that spiders were very good at eating pest insects and yet so quickly killed off by insecticides that, if were to keep the spiders we would not need to use so much insecticide - something that is a much more environmentally friendly way of farming than using insecticides which kill off virtually all of the natural pest control!

Sara explained how this related to the work of the Spider Lab by saying "One of the reasons I work on Money Spiders is that, very helpfully for farmers, they use silk as a sail and fly back in, they go up into the air and fly back in pretty quickly - and that is incredibly helpful for us as it means they can get back into a field much quicker than if they had to walk"

"If there is no kind of a debate about how spiders can really be the good guys here, they don't cause any harm, they even eat each other if they run out of food, so they even keep themselves under control. They don't carry any diseases, I looked in the whole literature, I thought that if there is one spider who carried a harmful germ or something then someone would have written about it and it would be in the [academic] papers but it's not and that's because they don't do anything except eat pests.

"I'm not trying to be biased in favour of spiders but, if you look at the evidence, they are just great!"

Sara also mentioned that people could get over their fear of spiders at programmes such as this one run by London Zoo.

And in terms of getting building a better relationship with plants, animals and insects in ones own locality, Sara recommended the work being done by OPAL (the OPen Air Laboratories project at, which is a charity Sara is involved with and which has many resources relating to spiders (such as this spider indentification pdf, or the "Spider in Da House" android app) - also worth checking out their other identification guides and their list of local activities!

Sara explained that one of the aims of OPAL is to get the everyone involved in science, by looking out to see how their local biology is faring and also to watch out for unwanted invading species. And also by suggesting projects, for example why does the number of mushrooms vary from year to year, or why are some trees doing better than others. If you have a spider related project idea, then please contact Sara directly!

Another resource is the British Arachnological Society at who have many spider experts on hand. Their comments on the False Widow Spider echo those of Sara.

If in doubt, put the spider out!

Spider Distribution Map at BAS

Q: Can you give some information on your research into Tarantula silk?
Sara explained that she was interested in Tarantula silk because Tarantulas were a very distant cousin of the spiders that are usually investigated to give ideas about manufacture of artificial silk. Tarantulas do not produce stretchy silk but do have some interesting features, including amazing feet, which allow them to walk up vertical walls !

All silk reacts with water by shrinking, which may be useful in biological switches, but we don't know much about the silk from most species of spiders. Tarantula silk appears to be water repellant, like Goretex, while House Spider silk appears to have anti-bacterial properties!

Spider Silk v Kevlar mechanical properties

Q: Any advice for youngsters thinking of studying biology.
Biology as a degree teaches you to put information together, to interact with other people, to study reports and extract information - as well as being great fun!

For young people still at school, Sara suggested that the best thing was to just dive in, and to be aware that by the time you graduate there may well be fields of biological study available that have not been invented yet! Adding that biology was a "fantastically fast moving, fun area and if you are interested in it, go for it! There will be bits where you think 'this is hard work'...but once you have done all those bits and you realise 'This is what we know, now here is all this stuff we don't know" and just dive on in there and you might just find the most fascinating place to be and that it keeps you interested forever, like it did me."

Learn Away !

Q: What is your favourite spider?
Turns out that Sara's favourite spider is a species if money spider called Erigone Atra, which is one of the best spiders at flying. Sara explained that, in the morning at around 6am, it climbs to the top of a structure (such as a gate post), tips its abdomen into the air and released about a metre of silk. This is picked up by the wind and the spider takes off, reaching heights of hundreds or perhaps thousands of metres into the air. No one knows how far they travel, but it can certainly be up to 70km per day. This is quite a risky thing to do, as the spider does not know where and in what kind of environment it will land! Because of this aerial ability, Erigone Atra is one of the UK's most important pest eating spiders.

Erigone Atra

Q: What is the geographical and climatic range of spiders
Sara commented that spiders can live in communities in the desert; that species like Erigone Atra can be blown to northern Scandinavia or the islands in the southern ocean; and that wind blown spiders are often the first species to arrive on a new volcanic island!

A few extra comments
This report does not really do justice to Sara's enthusiasm and engaging way of presenting ideas, so if any readers get the chance to hear Sara talk about spiders - grab the opportunity!

The biggest spider NSB has seen...

Related Links
Talk on Smart Materials
Talk on Natures Chemical Warface Agents
Talk on "Butterflies and Battleships"

Image Sources
Onions, University, Spider silk comparison, Silk strand, Erigone Atra

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