February 07, 2013

(++++) WONDERS AND WORRIES


Stronger Than Steel: Spider Silk DNA and the Quest for Better Bulletproof Vests, Sutures, and Parachute Rope. By Bridget Heos. Photographs by Andy Comins. Houghton Mifflin. $18.99.

Scholastic “Discover More”: Sharks. By David Burnie. Scholastic. $12.99.

      Consider the barnacle, bane of boaters everywhere. So adhesive that it is virtually unremovable from ships without a huge amount of physical labor, producing a glue so strong that it adheres to rocks for its entire life and simply cannot be budged by time or tide, the barnacle is thoroughly unremarkable and a major nuisance to humans in their nautical pursuits. But think about it: a glue so strong that it is nearly impossible to remove? With a bond so tough that humans, with all their equipment and knowledge, can barely break it? Are there opportunities in barnacles – say, for super-strong adhesives for use in everything from construction to wound healing after surgery?  It all depends on how you look at what nature does – something that may seem like an irritant one moment seems to open glorious possibilities the next. And as it is with barnacles, so it is with spider silk, that staple of horror films and dread of arachnophobes everywhere, that extremely thin and sticky and irritating material that constantly gets in the way and makes it difficult to clean houses or clean out abandoned ones. But, again, think about it: a fiber one-fifth the width of a human hair that is, for its size, stronger than steel.  Doesn’t that open up some highly intriguing possibilities?  The answer is a definite “yes,” and Stronger Than Steel explores the potential of human use of spider silk in a wide variety of very intriguing applications.  Again, as with barnacles, whose glue really is being explored for multiple purposes, spider silk has the potential for all sorts of human-driven applications, ranging from – as the book’s subtitle indicates – improved bulletproof vests (more effective and lighter than the current Kevlar ones, which are very heavy to wear and transport) to stronger surgical sutures.  And so Bridget Heos tells the story of – goats. Yes, goats. Randy Lewis, the scientist at the heart of Stronger Than Steel, is working on a major issue associated with spider silk – how to produce it in sufficient quantities to make it commercially viable – by genetically implanting goats with DNA from the golden orb weaver spider, the largest web-making spider on Earth. The result of this genetic tinkering is that the goats produce milk containing proteins that can be spun into spider silk – an amazing accomplishment that will, of course, predictably upset Luddites who oppose human creation and use of genetically modified organisms.  The book discusses this issue and gives it a fair hearing, but the primary thrust of Stronger Than Steel is the amazing scientific research and development through which Lewis and others are taking naturally occurring substances and finding ways to use them to make human life much better and much safer.  The book’s photographs, by Andy Comins, add to its sense of wonder, showing everything from silkworms (whose silk has been harvested and used by humans for thousands of years, and which may possibly be induced to produce spider silk instead of their own) to a golden orb weaver spider crawling on the face of a five-year-old boy (son of a member of Lewis’ research team).  This book is part of the excellent Scientists in the Field series, and is the series’ first foray into genetics – a field inspiring controversy, legal wrangles and a great deal of misunderstanding.  What Stronger Than Steel does so well is to place genetics within the overall realm of scientific investigation, stripped of sociopolitical posturing and fear-mongering, showing the very real and very exciting possibilities of this particular branch of research.  Along the way, young readers come to understand the ways in which humans are already using insects extensively – a photo of the Korean dish beondegi, which consists of silkworm pupae, may be more surprising to many than the pictures of sheep, goats, and lab apparatus.  Hopefully families that read Stronger Than Steel will not only pick up knowledge about some amazing possible human uses of remarkable, naturally occurring substances, but also have a chance to discuss what it means to experiment with animals and insects for human benefit. That is a discussion worth having – without hysteria.

      One creature that does provoke hysterical reactions in many people is the shark, and the Scholastic “Discover More” book about these fish will certainly do nothing to dispel those responses.  Like other books in this Scholastic series, this one hits readers with lots of photos and a relatively small amount of information, packed into brief paragraphs of a sentence or two. The data are accurate but are scarcely the point of the book, whose visual impact is its main purpose – buyers even get a free downloadable digital book, Shark Trackers, with additional information and a focus on researchers who study sharks and live in close proximity to them.  Sharks itself provides the basics on this ancient group of fish: their additional sense that lets them detect electrical fields around their prey; the various ways their babies (called pups) grow and are born (some from inside the mother shark, some from eggs laid on the ocean floor, some after eating their weaker siblings before birth); the three types that are deadliest to humans (great white, tiger and bull sharks); and the various ways sharks feed (the whale shark, the world’s largest living fish, is a filter feeder that is not at all dangerous to humans).  The contrasts in peoples’ experiences with sharks are clear, for anyone who looks for them: marine biologist Mark Spalding says he has “never come close to being bitten,” but the book also includes the story of surfer Bethany Hamilton, whose left arm was torn off by a tiger shark – and who recovered, learned to paddle with one arm, and is now one of the world’ top female surfers.  Many of the photos are pretty much what a reader will expect, such as the gaping jaws of a great white shark and the gigantic tooth of the extinct Megalodon (which grew to 65 feet). But a few pictures are genuinely intriguing, such as a set of two showing that, viewed from below, a sea turtle and a surfer on a board look almost identical – clearly showing why sharks, which like to eat turtles, sometimes attack humans by mistake.  The scientific portions of the book explain about types of sharks that travel across entire oceans, habitats in which sharks live, and ways in which sharks are threatened by humans.  There is good information here, as in other Scholastic “Discover More” books, even though the material is presented rather distractingly – the book is designed more for visual than for factual impact, but it does manage to offer some worthwhile science within its somewhat over-intense design. 

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