By Lindsey Rodrian
It’s not abnormal for Dr. Craig Vierra, University of the Pacific’s College of Biological Sciences Professor and Co-Chair, to be greeted by a jarred black widow spider placed outside his office door. While many screech, flee or panic at the sight of their signature red hourglass adorned abdomen, Dr. Vierra is infatuated by the complexity of the species.
A Modesto native, Craig attended UC Davis and majored in Biochemistry. “Chemistry is dry without biology,” he says, describing the evolution of his passion. “I found I really enjoyed the combination of the two- and that was solidified by my junior and senior year when I had the opportunity to work in a research lab.” In 1994 Craig earned his PhD in Biochemistry from University of California Riverside, and came to Pacific for a one-year position as a visiting lecturer; he never left.
The university was much different at the start of his career, Dr. Vierra explains as he notes lack of infrastructure and research equipment. “After two years I got my first grant funded and was asked to sit on the review panel in North Arlington, Virginia for the National Science Foundation and was on that panel for six years straight. The connections I made there opened doors for Pacific; our department was growing and gaining momentum.”
In 1998 a colleague in need of a molecular biologist to clone and manipulate spider genes approached Dr. Vierra. He said yes–and together they joined the rat race to produce synthetic spider silk–and made history along the way.
As Dr. Vierra honed his research, he discovered Black Widows have seven different bio factories in their abdomen and each can make a different silk type with different properties. He and his team worked for years to prove this theory, waiting until their spiders spun webs that could be tested and traced back to the spider’s glands. For nearly 10 years his team published many discoveries and are credited for identifying nearly half of the protein molecules that comprise the seven different silks.
“Mother nature made us a nice group of next-generation materials that can be used for different applications,” says Craig. “As far back as you go in history the strength, elasticity, and toughness of webs were used. The Romans were using cob webs to heal wounds; if someone had a tissue that was damaged they’d wrap it in cob webs… even Shakespeare mentions it in his writing.”
“Our focus today?” Dr. Vierra says as he pinpoints synthetic silk production. “We transitioned into developing methods in which to spin the fibers. So we took our genetic blue print, put it in yeast, purified the proteins and then tried to figure out how to convert them from liquid to solid to spin threads,” he explains, noting that their fibers “aren’t as good as the natural ones, because Mother Nature is a hard one to outdo.”
As the use of spider silk takes foot in Europe with large companies producing large quantities of the silk for use in vacuum filtration systems, members of Pacific work passionately to unlock the power possessed by the different silks discovered asking, “How can we make the silks better? Are there molecules missing? Is the spinning process correct?
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University of the Pacific College of Biological Sciences