Can science make a Spider-Man?

By Rhys L Griffiths

Spider-man! Image from 'Captain America:Civil War' (2016)

Spider-man! Image from ‘Captain America:Civil War’ (2016)

2016 seems to be the year where Superheroes fight. First we had Batman Vs Superman where the winner was the studio who raked in the millions of dollars it made, and the losers were the audience who had to sit through it. Now it’s Captain America Vs Iron Man in the newly released ‘Captain America: Civil War’. This film has a lot of people excited but it’s mainly because the film features your friendly neighbourhood Spider-man. Forget Captain America and his super soldier serum. Forget Tony Stark and his fancy Iron suit. Spider-man is finally swinging onto the scene.

But what I want to know is, can we make a Spider-man using science?

‘Is he strong? Listen bud, he’s got radioactive blood’

A Black Widow Spider. CC Pixabay

A Black Widow Spider. CC Pixabay

Spider-man gets his spider like abilities after being bitten by a radioactive spider. Unfortunately if this would happen to a human, it would have no effect. We are exposed to about 3 millisieverts (mSv) of it a year from the sun and natural radioactive gasses. According to Katy Waldman in an article she wrote for The Slate she states: “The amount of radiation contained in the venom from a single spider bite would likely fall between .00003 and .000003 mSv – an inconsequential dose, about as much radiation as you’d absorb from eating a banana, which contains the radioactive isotope Potassium-40.”

In order for a spider bite to have a DNA altering effect then it would have to have the power of a nuclear reactor, which would no doubtingly kill the spider. A human’s DNA could be altered using Ionizing Radiation, which would knock off electrons from atoms, which then leaves the atoms charged and called Ions. This can break chemicals bonds and alter your DNA.

‘Can he swing from a thread? Take a look overhead.’

Ok so maybe we won’t be able to have a spider alter our DNA, but what about humans swinging from webs? Is that possible? In some version’s of Spider-man he can produce the web-like substance organically but in others he engineers web shooters. As impressive as making your own web shooters is, could a human produce spider silk? The short answer is no. But scientists have managed to code the specific spider silk making gene into a goat creating SPIDER-GOAT!

Spider-goat! Image by Benjamin Karis-Nix

Spider-goat! Image by Benjamin Karis-Nix

Now to clarify Spider-goat doesn’t spin webs to catch its prey, nor will it be much use if the Green Goblin shows up. It looks just like a regular goat, except the difference lies in the goats milk. The milk is not meant to be drunk. It contains elements of golden orb spider silk. Golden orb spider silk is one of the strongest substances known to man. It’s stronger weight for weight then steel, finer then human hair and is able to keep it’s strength below -40°C. It’s also believed that a Boeing 747 aeroplane could be stopped in mid flight be a single pencil-width strand.

You may be thinking, what’s the point in the Spider-goat? Well this silk can be used to create vests for security personnel. It’s very strong, very flexible and very light. Kevlar was built in an attempt to replicate it. Milking a spider is difficult. They are very small. So by implanting this particular gene inside a goat you have a larger more efficient silk producing machine.

Goat silk fabric blended with Human skin. Can stop a bullet at low speed.

Goat silk fabric blended with Human skin. Can stop a bullet at low speed.

Scientists have also managed to blend fabric, woven from the goat’s silk, with human skin to create a material which will hopefully stop bullets. Dutch researcher Jalila Essaidi, works with the Forensic Genomics Consortium in the Netherlands, said ‘the goal was to replace the keratin [a protein] in our skin with the spider’s silk’. While testing, she managed to grow a layer of human skin around a sample of the bulletproof skin, which took about 5 weeks. This managed to stop the bullet of a .22 calibre rifle bullet, which travels at low speed. At the moment they are still researching BioSteel (the fancy name they have given to the material because Goat Silk isn’t as catchy) to make it more efficient in order to stop a wide range of artillery.

‘Spider-man, Spider-man, does what ever a spider can’.

Spider-man can do a lot of things but I find it difficult to believe that he can do whatever a spider can. I don’t think he has the ability to lay 200 eggs a year, that would play havoc with his crime fighting escapades. One thing he can do is climb walls. We may not be able to give humans radioactive, DNA altering blood, or the ability to produce silk (yet) but we have learnt how to climb walls.

70K man using 'Gecko Gloves' to climb a building. Image taken from BBC News

70Kg man using ‘Gecko Gloves’ to climb a building. Image taken from BBC News

A team of engineers at Stanford University have developed “Gecko Gloves”. These gloves are pads of 24 tiles covered in a synthetic adhesive which shares the weight of large loads evenly across all tiles. The adhesives are covered with sawtooth-shape polymer structures that are the width of a human hair. The pads are then attached to depressive springs that become less stiff as they are stretched so you are able to pull your hand away from the wall as you climb. Superheroes aren’t the only one would benefit from this. The team behind the pads are working on a project with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab to apply these pads to the robotic arms of spacecraft to attach to objects gently and reposition them without strain.

So could we make a Spider-man? It’s unlikely.

We are just going to have to settle with Spider-goat.


For more Superhero science check out:

The Physics of Thor’s Hammer
Batman V Superman: Who would win?
Can I run as fast as The Flash?
Could Ego the Living Planet really exist?

science made simple
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Posted in Biology, Engineering, News, Technology