“Biological Parents,” in The Magazine
One day during his senior year of high school in Wilmington, Delaware, Rich Pell stayed after school to watch a spider get “silked.” His school was near the headquarters of DuPont, the global chemical company with the motto, “The miracles of science,” and his biology teacher was friends with an employee.
Scientists had identified the genes that made up the golden orb weaver’s silk, considered one of the strongest natural proteins found on Earth. They ultimately intended to produce large quantities of dragline silk, the strongest fiber among several kinds that a spider spins for webs, eggs sacs, and insect wrapping. Four of the orb weavers were in Pell’s classroom, on loan from DuPont’s Experimental Station.
That afternoon, Pell watched a visiting scientist tape the legs of a spider to a table and attach a piece of its silk to a battery-powered spindle, which collected the silk as the spider produced it. He remembers that as a weird window into the world of biotechnology.
Nearly two decades later, Pell has come full circle back to those spiders, this time via the guts of stuffed goats.