The ability for animals to spin silk has been marvelled at by biologists and comic book fans alike for many years. However, the phenomena may not be limited to as few creatures as previously thought. Researchers have recently discovered a species of shrimp that uses a silk-spinning technique to build its very own sand house.
Crassicorophium bonellii,a tidal dwelling crustacean, has the ability to produce a sticky fibrous material through ducts on its legs in order to generate a functional thread. This similar technique to spiders of extrusion spinning is used to produce ‘gossamer threads’, which have the added property of being salt-water resistance. The fibres are then used to combine sand, vegetation, algae and its own faeces to provide a shelter.
Although Professor Fritz Vollrath and his team from University of Oxford noted the ability of the shrimp to spin silk underwater, much of the properties of the material remain unknown. It is thought to have evolved independently to the production of silk within spiders and as such may provide further insights into convergent evolution- the development of similar characteristics in unrelated species.
Further exploration into the novel material may also provide the basis for future adhesive products or silk production. For example, the barnacle cement biology involved in fibre production may provide a breakthrough in marine glues or barnacle-resistant coatings for boat hulls. The costs of drag in the shipping industry therefore would be minimized.
Currently the silk industry worldwide has an approximate value of $200-$500 million, although much of it is now produced artificially. Genetically modified spider silk was created from worms and goats in Utah State University to produce extra strong fibres which have the ability to stop reduced speed bullets. More advances such as this may be possible as nature reveals more secrets in the form of the shrimp.
By Sophie Meyjes