By Yosef Scher, Science and Technology Editor
Scientists have recently discovered something from one of your worst nightmares: reincarnated spiders transformed into mechanical robots. While some people are genuinely horrified by the thought of reincarnated organisms, the nascent field of science called “necrobiotics” has provided scientists with high hopes for future applications.
This innovation was born out of a simple observation from Rice University. As Faye Yap, a mechanical engineering graduate student, walked back from class one day, she noticed a dead spider on the floor. This was not the first spider she had ever seen in her life, but this was the first time she keenly observed the dead creature and saw that it curled up when it died. After pondering why this was, Yap turned to one of her professors, Daniel Preston, to help her solve this enigma.
Initially, Preston recommended that the spiders be put in a double boiler, “hoping that the wet heat would make the spiders expand and push their legs outward.” When that didn’t work, Yap and Preston decided to take a simpler approach: supergluing a syringe to the spider’s cephalothorax, the scientific term for the fused head and thorax of the spider, and shooting air into that area. Yap had doubts about whether such a simple solution would work, so it was exhilarating when the necrobot moved its legs on the first attempt! After several successful attempts, Yap concluded that the spider moved its legs with the syringe technique because spiders are designed like hydraulic systems, which “generate, control, and transmit power through pressurized liquids [or gases].” While spiders can “naturally flex their limbs inward using their flexor muscles,” spiders need to utilize hydraulic pressure to push its eight legs outward. As such, when the spider is alive, it can “control how much their legs extend by forcing blood into them.” When the spider dies, it no longer has blood pressure, so its legs curl up. The air pumped into their cephalothorax acts as an artificial blood pressure that can extend their legs.
After explaining why this phenomenon occurred, Yap and Preston moved to the next stage in their experiment: seeing if the spider could act like mechanical robots and pick up objects. The scientists found that the spider had “a peak grip force of 0.35 millinewtons,” which is roughly a hundred times their body weight! While this was an accomplishment in itself, Yap and Preston wanted to further their investigation and see how precise the spider was in picking up objects. As a result, they tested if the spider could delicately handle a jumper wire––a small component of an electric breadboard––without dropping it. Like the other tests, the spider was successful on almost every attempt.
While the spiders’ tests were relatively simple and mundane, scientists predict that future research with necrobots will enhance our knowledge of robotics and help us in our day-to-day lives. For instance, Yap and Preston believe these necrobots can be “[deployed]… to capture smaller insects in nature”, such as mosquitos, that rampantly spread disease. Additionally, scientists believe these necrobots will be used as robots that will sort, move, and assemble small objects, such as those found in microelectronics. Although some scientists are skeptical about the functionality and future of necrobots, Preston and Yap are adamant that the futuristic advancements in necrobiotics are not a question of if but rather a question of when.