It’s our Gene of the Month, and this time it’s Spidey - and yes, it was named after Spiderman. Discovered in 2016 in those famous fruit flies, Drosophila melanogaster, Spidey encodes a type of protein known as a steroid dehydrogenase, which is involved in making a component of the waxy substance that coats the outer layer of the insect, known as the cuticle.
Not only does this biological raincoat help to protect flies from the weather and would-be microbial invaders, it also carries important information about the sex, age and social status of the wearer.
It turns out that knocking out Spidey in fly larva is lethal, and the maggots are unable to hatch out of their pupal stage. But more intriguingly, reducing the activity of the gene in adult male flies has an even more striking effect: Around half of male flies with reduced Spidey levels end up firmly stuck to the walls of the plastic tubes they live in - hence the homage to Spiderman.
Changes in the properties of the waxy compounds making up their normally non-stick cuticle coat, meaning that the fly’s legs become coated with food and other gunk and they become glued down. Unlike their comic book namesake, these flies cannot use their sticky powers for good, and eventually die of starvation, coming unstuck in the metaphorical rather than literal sense.
Versions of Spidey are found in many insects, and researchers hope that understanding more about its role in development, stickiness and protection could lead to the development of more effective, targeted pesticides. And looking outside the insect world, maybe we could harness Spidey’s special behaviour to develop better anti-microbial or non-stick coatings. Though whether they can repel Spiderman himself remains to be seen.