Spider Dragline Silk: Correlated and Mosaic Evolution in High-Performance Biological Materials

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Winter 2006


The evolution of biological materials is a critical, yet poorly understood, component in the generation of biodiversity. For example, the diversification of spiders is correlated with evolutionary changes in the way they use silk, and the material properties of these fibers, such as strength, toughness, extensibility, and stiffness, have profound effects on ecological function. Here, we examine the evolution of the material properties of dragline silk across a phylogenetically diverse sample of species in the Araneomorphae (true spiders). The silks we studied are generally stronger than other biological materials and tougher than most biological or man-made fibers, but their material properties are highly variable; for example, strength and toughness vary more than fourfold among the 21 species we investigated. Furthermore, associations between different properties are complex. Some traits, such as strength and extensibility, seem to evolve independently and show no evidence of correlation or trade-off across species, even though trade-offs between these properties are observed within species. Material properties retain different levels of phylogenetic signal, suggesting that traits such as extensibility and toughness may be subject to different types or intensities of selection in several spider lineages. The picture that emerges is complex, with a mosaic pattern of trait evolution producing a diverse set of materials across spider species. These results show that the properties of biological materials are the target of selection, and that these changes can produce evolutionarily and ecologically important diversity.

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