Scientists have literally reanimated dead spiders to do their bidding.
In a new field called “necrobotics,” researchers turned the corpses of wolf spiders in pincers that can manipulate objects. All the team had to do was stick a syringe into the back of a dead spider and glue it in place. Pushing fluid in and out of the corpse caused its legs to forcefully open and close, researchers report July 25 in advanced science.
The idea grew out of a simple question, explains Faye Yap, a mechanical engineer at Rice University in Houston. Why do spiders curl up when they die?
The answer: spiders are hydraulic machines (Serial number: 04/25/22). They control how far your legs extend by forcing blood into them. A dead spider no longer has that blood pressure, so its legs curl up.
“We were thinking that was cool,” says Yap. “We wanted to take advantage of it.”
His team first tried putting dead wolf spiders in a double boiler, hoping the moist heat would cause the spiders to expand and push their legs out. This is not functional. But when the researchers injected fluid directly into a spider’s carcass, they found that they could control their grip well enough to pull wires from a circuit board and pick up other dead spiders. Only after hundreds of uses did the necrobots begin to dehydrate and show signs of wear and tear.
In the future, the researchers will cover the spiders with a sealant to prevent such decline. But the next big step is to monitor the spiders’ legs individually, Yap says, and in the process, find out more about how spiders work. Then his team could translate his understanding into better designs for other robots.
“That would be very, very interesting,” says Rashid Bashir, a bioengineer at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who was not involved in the new study. A spider corpse itself would likely have problems as a robot, he says, because it won’t function consistently like “tough robots” and its body will decompose over time. But spiders definitely can offer lessons to the engineers (Serial number: 2/4/19). “There is a lot to learn from biology and nature,” says Bashir.
For all the reanimation of dead spiders, Yap is no mad scientist. He wonders if he’s okay playing Frankenstein, even with spiders. “Nobody really talks about ethics” when it comes to this kind of research, he says.
Scientists need to figure out the morality of this kind of bioengineering before they get too good at it, Bashir agrees. The question is, he says, “how far do you go?”