You will certainly have heard of it this week: a team of scientists literally "revived" dead spiders to do their bidding. In a new field called "necrobotics," researchers have converted the corpses of wolf spiders into pincers that can handle objects. All the team had to do was stick a syringe into the back of a dead spider and glue it. Pushing the fluid in and out of the corpse, the paws opened and closed, researchers report on July 25 on Advanced Science.
The idea came from a simple question, he explains Faye Yap, the young mechanical engineer from Rice University in Houston and first author of the study. Why do spiders curl up when they die?
The answer is simple: because spiders are like gods hydraulic machines. They control the extension of the legs by forcing blood into them. Since a dead spider no longer has this blood pressure, its paws curl up.
"We thought it was great," says Yap. “We wanted to exploit it”.
His team first tried putting dead wolf spiders to gently heat, hoping the moist heat would cause the spiders to expand and push their paws outward. It did not work. But when the researchers injected the fluid directly into a spider's corpse, they found that they could control its grip well enough to pick up other dead spiders and move small objects like wires in a circuit.
Only after hundreds of uses did the necrobots begin to dehydrate and show signs of wear.
A little creepy… What can necrobotics be used for?
In the future, the researchers will coat the spiders with a sealant to prevent decline. But the next big step is to check spider legs individually, Yap says, and in the process understand better how spiders work. At that point his team (and the scientific community in general) could use these new notions to better design other robots.
“It would be very, very interesting,” he says Rashid Bashir, a bioengineer at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who did not participate in the new study. A spider corpse would likely have problems as a robot, because it would not perform as well as "tough robots" and its body would break down over time. "There is a lot to learn from biology and nature," says Bashir,
What about ethics? Is it right to reanimate corpses and use their bodies as robots?
Despite this study on the "resuscitation" of dead spiders, Yap is not a mad scientist and necrobotics is not madness. She wonders if it's okay to play Frankenstein, even just with spiders. “Nobody really talks about ethics” when it comes to this kind of research, she says.
Scientists need to understand the morality of this type of bioengineering before they get too good, Bashir agrees. The question is, he says, "how far can you go?".