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Stealing the Secrets of Spider Silk

by Karin Heineman, Inside Science

Spiders put their silk to use in all sorts of ways. Now, Jeff Yarger, a biochemist at Arizona State University in Tempe, and his colleagues are finding ways that spider silk can benefit humans.

"We’re actually collecting natural silk from spiders that are prey-wrapping,” said Yarger.

The silk that spiders use to wrap and immobilize their prey is different from the silk they use to build webs or dangle from a ceiling. It’s also the least studied. Now scientists are harvesting this silk to find out what makes it different.

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Dolphin-Inspired Radar Improves IED, Disaster Survivor Detection

by Charles Q. Choi

To hunt more successfully, dolphins weave circular nets of bubbles around schools of fish that force their prey to cluster together.

But to create tools from bubbles, which normally scatter acoustic pulses and clutter sonar images, researchers wondered whether dolphins shut down their sonar when making the nets or somehow adapted it to account for the air pockets.

Now, investigations into this novel hunting technique have inspired new technology that can detect hidden bugging equipment and covert explosives, researchers say. The novel scanners could also help find disaster victims buried deep beneath rubble.

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Venom’s Pharmacy: Toxins’ Upside Means Advanced Medicines

by Michael Keller

Could it be that venom is just what we need to heal what ails us?

With the still unfolding news of 1,600 injuries and 42 deaths inflicted so far in China by the Asian giant hornet’s sting, it might seem ridiculous to suggest that there’s an upside to the dangerous cocktail of toxins injected by thousands of creatures around the world.

Yet just when the bad news about the hornets’ deadly collision with humanity broke, another announcement emerged from the scientific community. Chinese and Australian researchers reported in the journal Nature that they had found a compound in the Chinese red-headed centipede’s venom that is a more potent painkiller than morphine and carries no addiction risk. 

Such a discovery might appear to be an anomaly, an accidental kindness from the debilitating and sometimes lethal world of animal poisons. But those engaged in the burgeoning field of venom-based therapeutics development called venomics say that it’s no accident. 

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Who Made The World’s First Gear?

by Michael Keller

First we find out that deep-sea glass sponges were the first to come up with fiber optics, and that there’s is superior to our own. Then we hear that mussels and slugs might make just the right glue for building construction and surgery. The list just keeps growing and growing.

And University of Cambridge researchers announced on Sept. 12 that nature has beat human ingenuity to the punch once again, in one of our most dearly held simple machines: the gear.

It turns out that at least one type of hopping insect, in the genus Issus, developed gears on their hind legs as a means of coupling them when they extend to jump. The planthopper’s gears, which are composed of a curved strip holding 10-12 teeth on each leg, exist only in an immature stage of the insect’s development.

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