Victoria Lekson, a Seaver College music performance (harp) and biology double major was awarded a Keck Scholarship from the W. M. Keck Foundation to fund her research into the effects of temperature on the web strength of native Malibu spider, Araneus gemmoides.
Working with co-mentors Stephen Davis (see main article) and Laurieanne Dent, visiting professor of biology, Lekson collected spiders from Tapia Park in Malibu Creek State Park in order to test the tensile strength of the spider’s web at various temperatures—tensile strength meaning how much weight can be applied to the web silk before it will break.
“I had hypothesized that their webs would be strongest at the average temperature of Malibu, since that is what they’re acclimatized to, but it turns out it’s not to be the case,” says Lekson.
“Spiders are exothermic, meaning they rely on the temperature of the environment to control how they function, and so temperature affects how fast they can produce silk,” she explains. “What surprised me is that even though they produce more silk when it’s hot, it’s not as strong. In the winter, they slow down a lot and make thick silk.”
The money awarded to Lekson from the W. M. Keck Foundation has gone towards buying an adaptor for an Instron machine that Pepperdine owns—a device that measures tensile strength but is not sensitive or gentle enough to test spider silk. Before receiving the adaptor, she set up preliminary tests the old-fashioned way: by slowly adding water to a small cup, hanging by the strength of the spider silk, and seeing how far it would stretch before breaking.
“Eventually I want to use the data to see how protein composition in the silk changes at different temperatures,” Lekson says. “Spider silk is a great biological material—it’s really strong and conductive. The more data we have, the closer we get to synthesizing the silk in labs without spiders.”
Synthesizing spider silk could be beneficial in a number of ways, one of which includes the design and production of harp strings. Lekson, who has been playing the harp for years and co-majors in harp performance at Pepperdine, notes that scientists have already made violin strings from spider silk.
She remembers, prior to deciding to pursue this research project, collecting insects as part of a class with Davis last fall, and finding a number of Araneus gemmoides spiders. “I said at the time that it would be cool if I could make harp strings out of spider silk. It’s such a super versatile material.”