Arachnicillin?

An advertisement a few years ago in Parade Magazine caught the attention of Penn State biologist Don McKinstry: "Learn how a cobweb can help you when you get a cut in the woods."

Medical folklore, he wondered, akin to rubbing butter on a burn? Or a bona fide folk remedy?

spider web

Spider webs have been used for wound dressings since the first century A.D.—perhaps because spiders were thought to be "lucky," McKinstry says. The custom remained popular through Shakespeare's day: "I shall desire you of more acquaintance, good master cobweb," said the character Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream. "If I cut my finger, I shall make bold of you."

Not so today. Out of 100 biology students surveyed at Penn State Erie—The Behrend College, only 10 had ever heard of using spider webs on cuts. One had actually tried this remedy . . . reportedly, with success.

Yet most people, given the choice, opt for a glob of Neosporin and a Band-Aid. They're inexpensive. They're effective. They involve no creepy crawlies.

Neosporin may not always do the trick, asserts one of McKinstry's biology students, Lori Springer. "Different strains of bacteria are becoming resistant to the antibiotics we have now," she explains, "so there's been a drive in recent years to find natural sources of antibiotics—new ones."

It's not the webs themselves that supposedly protect against microbial attack. It's a chemical coating on the silk, much like the sticky coating for prey capture, which is released from one of many glands as the spider spins the web. Arachnologist Rainer Foelix notes in his book, Biologie der Spinnen, that the coating may protect old and abandoned webs from fungal and bacterial attack.

"This antiseptic quality of the spider web," writes Foelix' colleague Fritz Vollrath in Scientific American, "may account for its renown as a folk remedy for dressing wounds."

In spite of the literary and scientific references to spider web remedies, no clinical or laboratory studies on the subject have yet been documented. Springer has found research on the structure of spider webs, on their geometry, on the way they capture prey, on spider biology, on superstitions and folklore. But she has found nothing that examines the antimicrobial effects of the webs.

Currently she is testing for such effects in known spider web chemicals—choline, betaine, isethionic acid, lysine, and cysteic acid. She takes a small paper disk, like the cut-out from a paper punch, saturates it with one of the chemicals, and places it in a petri dish that contains a bacterial strain—one of the four reference strains routinely used for antibiotic testing. (The most common is Escherichia coli or E. coli, a human intestinal bacterium often the cause of water pollution.) If the only change in the dish after an 18-hour incubation period is bacteria growth, the chemical has had no effect. But if there is a sizable clear zone around the disk, the chemical has successfully inhibited the growth of the bacteria and is, therefore, antimicrobial. So far, Springer has had only marginal success with one of the chemicals.

But Springer's test chemicals were extracted from the webs of fairly few species of spider. The chemical she's looking for may not be on those particular webs from those particular spiders: It may be on webs spun by other spiders, of which there are more than 35,000 species worldwide. Springer is starting small. ("The truth is," she admits, "I'm not too crazy about spiders.") She's planning to collect spiders—around 50 in all—from Presque Isle State Park on Lake Erie and from the Behrend College campus. Each will be housed in its own glass box where each will spin its own web—all stored (sans tuffet, curds, and whey) in Springer's tiny basement lab at Behrend. She will harvest the webs, soak them in solvents, and then test the chemicals left in the resulting solutions, using the same disk-procedure as before.

"They've found antibiotics in sharks and in frogs," she says. "Spider webs could be another source."

Lori Springer is an undergraduate student in biology. Don McKinstry, Ph.D., is associate professor of biology, Penn State Erie—The Behrend College, Station Road, Erie, PA 16563; 814-898-6402. Springer's research is funded by an undergraduate student research grant from The Behrend College. Vicki L. Glembocki is a former writing R/PS intern and current associate editor at Pitt Magazine.

Last Updated September 01, 1995