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Leading article: Web of intrigue

Robert the Bruce was said to have been inspired by a spider's perseverance in constructing its web. But modern scientists have been more interested in the web itself.

Though cobwebs look fragile to our eyes, the webbing has an incredible tensile strength; it is several times stronger than steel of the same thickness. The silk is also phenomenally elastic. For many years, scientists have been searching for a method to create larger fibres from spider webbing, in the same way that farmers extract cloth from the cocoon of silk worms. That has always proved unsuccessful. But now a team in Germany believe they have made a breakthrough by developing a technique for mimicking the way spiders process proteins into silk. There could be a whole host of applications for such a material, from covering wounds to replacing environmentally-harmful plastics.

There is a lesson here. And it is not just one of the merits of spider-like perseverance from scientists. There is a tendency for humankind to see itself as somehow apart from the natural world, pushing forward the horizons of possibility through innate human genius. In fact, as this development shows, we still have a huge amount to learn from the natural world.

It should not be a surprise, really. All the living creatures on our planet are exquisitely adapted for their particular function; many have been in development for far longer than we humans have been on the planet. Human genius is one thing – but we must not forget to look around us for inspiration too.