Spiders, Algae, Goats and Silkworms. What’s the common thread?
Stronger than Steel: Spider Silk DNA and the Quest for Better Bulletproof Vests, Sutures and Parachute Rope ($18.99, Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, Ages 10 and up) will enlighten you as much as it does your curious child. This sophisticated science book is all about transgenics, a process whereby genes from one species are isolated, modified and then injected into a different species so transgenes can be developed. The objective of this type of science is to find new ways to solve health issues in humans and other animals as well as in the foods we eat.
Readers will be fascinated by orb spiders as they spin silk that is stronger than Kevlar (the material used to make bullet-proof vests) and is more flexible than nylon, even in extremely low temperatures. This silk has the potential to be so valuable with so many uses such as bioengineered ligaments and tendons, surgical sutures, parachute rope, bulletproof vests and even space suits.
Author Bridget Heos focuses the book on the research of Dr. Randy Lewis, who conducted experiments at the University of Wyoming and currently is a professor at the Utah State University. Since spider silk has so many coveted properties , the focus on the research involves figuring out the best and fastest way to reproduce it. We learn that Orb spiders cannot go to work together in the same space to produce silk, because they would eat each other!
Randy’s team is experimenting with spider silk by injecting the gene into goats, so their milk produces silk. The gene does not change the appearance, health or behavior of the goats, only the properties of their milk. There is also research being done on growing silk through alfafa, the flowering plant, which is a major crop in Wyoming. Essentially the plant is infected with bacteria that contain the spider gene, and then the spider alfafa grows as sprouts. Dr. Lewis’ intriguing research also includes injecting the spider gene into silkworms; unlike spiders, silkworms never eat each other and can produce silk at rapid rates.
What impresses me most about the book is the author does an incredible job explaining the revolutionary science in such a way that young advanced readers can completely understand it. There are comprehensive explanations about DNA, proteins, genes and more that are so educational. I loved reading about the goats and all the possible uses of spider silk too. The photographs in the book by Andy Comins are terrific, especially the close-ups of the spiders and silkworms.
I was happy to see that there is a chapter on the ethic of transgenics, as it is a controversial topic. Some people believe the practice is unnatural and immoral because scientists are basically “altering nature.” There are animal activists too who believe it is unjust to use them for experimentation. It’s so important that children (and adults) learn not only about bioethics, but also understand that many of the foods we buy in our grocery stores have been genetically modified for a variety of reasons. We each must form our own opinions about this science by objectively looking at both points of view – for and against – transgenics.
I’ve read and reviewed many science books for kids, and can say without a doubt that Stronger than Steel is the most sophisticated and advanced of all those books. It’s a fascinating read and the perfect way to introduce your gifted child to transgenics. They can also get a glimpse into the long process of doing scientific research. I have no doubt this book will inspire some very bright children to choose careers in science. It sure made me wish I had a PhD in Molecular Biology!
Note: This title is one of many in Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Scientists in the Field Series. Check out the website here.
– Reviewed by Debbie Glade