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Spider-Man: Spidey science gets a genetic makeover

By Kate Dalke

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As Spider-Man swings into movie theatres this summer, we wondered: Does the science behind his superpowers hold up?

In the movie adaptation of the Marvel comic book classic, director Sam Raimi brings the life of Peter Parker to the big screen. Tobey Maguire plays Parker, a shy and studious teenager who suffers an unexpected fate on a school field trip to Columbia University's Science Department. There, scientists have combined synthesized RNA from three species of spider to create 15 genetically modified super-spiders. The new species of spider has superior web-building ability and jumping strength, as well as a special spider-sense to detect danger. But one spider from the exhibit is missing!

This red and blue spider bites Parker on the hand, giving him super-arachnid powers. He has bulging muscles, 20-20 vision and a mean punch. His now-sticky hands allow him to climb walls, and web shooters that extend from his wrists let him swing from the tallest skyscrapers in New York City.

We know it's just a movie, but how realistic is the storyline of a genetically modified spider? Could scientists create designer spiders that inject superpower venom?

"The mechanism in the movie is pure fantasy," says Jonathan Coddington, a research scientist at the National Museum of Natural History, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

The venom of spiders mainly consists of globular proteins. Unless these proteins contained a viral parasite that was carrying all the amazing spider genes, the transfer of genetic material could never happen.

Nonetheless, the idea of a genetically modified spider is more realistic than the original comic book's concept of an irradiated super-spider, according to Coddington. In the comic book, Parker visits an exhibit at the Science Hall on experiments in radioactivity. A spider gets caught in the demonstration and is irradiated, yet manages to bite young Parker before it dies.

"The movie's much more believable," says Coddington. "If you irradiate a spider, it dies."

Besides, he adds, the mutagenic properties of irradiation are carried in an organism's germ line. "And that's at the other end of the spider."

See related GNN article: Super fibers: Spinning spider webs without spiders

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Tobey Maguire stars as Peter Parker in Columbia Pictures action adventure SPIDER-MAN.

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