Open Access Highly Accessed Open Badges Research article

Multi-tissue transcriptomics of the black widow spider reveals expansions, co-options, and functional processes of the silk gland gene toolkit

Thomas H Clarke1, Jessica E Garb2, Cheryl Y Hayashi3, Robert A Haney2, Alexander K Lancaster45, Susan Corbett2 and Nadia A Ayoub1*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biology, Washington and Lee University, Lexington, VA 24450, USA

2 Department of Biological Sciences, University of Massachusetts, Lowell, MA 01854, USA

3 Department of Biology, University of California, Riverside, CA 92521, USA

4 Department of Pathology, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston, MA 02115, USA

5 Center for Biomedical Informatics, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA 02115, USA

For all author emails, please log on.

BMC Genomics 2014, 15:365  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-15-365

Published: 11 June 2014



Spiders (Order Araneae) are essential predators in every terrestrial ecosystem largely because they have evolved potent arsenals of silk and venom. Spider silks are high performance materials made almost entirely of proteins, and thus represent an ideal system for investigating genome level evolution of novel protein functions. However, genomic level resources remain limited for spiders.


We de novo assembled a transcriptome for the Western black widow (Latrodectus hesperus) from deeply sequenced cDNAs of three tissue types. Our multi-tissue assembly contained ~100,000 unique transcripts, of which >‚ÄČ27,000 were annotated by homology. Comparing transcript abundance among the different tissues, we identified 647 silk gland-specific transcripts, including the few known silk fiber components (e.g. six spider fibroins, spidroins). Silk gland specific transcripts are enriched compared to the entire transcriptome in several functions, including protein degradation, inhibition of protein degradation, and oxidation-reduction. Phylogenetic analyses of 37 gene families containing silk gland specific transcripts demonstrated novel gene expansions within silk glands, and multiple co-options of silk specific expression from paralogs expressed in other tissues.


We propose a transcriptional program for the silk glands that involves regulating gland specific synthesis of silk fiber and glue components followed by protecting and processing these components into functional fibers and glues. Our black widow silk gland gene repertoire provides extensive expansion of resources for biomimetic applications of silk in industry and medicine. Furthermore, our multi-tissue transcriptome facilitates evolutionary analysis of arachnid genomes and adaptive protein systems.

de novo assembly; Spidroin; Gene family; Molecular evolution; Latrodectus hesperus