Meet Dr. Rob Haney, the newest faculty member in the Biology Department

When you think of genetic research and manipulation, specifically research that isolates the glands that produce a spider’s venom, you can’t help but think of The Island of Dr. Moreau, Jurassic Park, and most notably, Spider-Man. Now our newest biology faculty member Rob Haney is not attempting to become a spider-based superhero, but he is fascinated by the eight-legged arachnids.

Rob Haney, Assistant Professor of Biology

What are some of your experiences prior to coming to Ball State?

I don’t have a traditional sort of story. My early biology classes were actually taught by a paleontologist and I became interested in evolution and evolutionary biology. That’s what I went to graduate school for at Brown: ecology and evolutionary biology, that was my department. After graduate school I had a post-doc at University of Chicago and then Harvard, briefly at Northeastern. Then at UMass Lowell for several years before coming here. I have worked in a variety of biology departments with different focuses.

I have been hired here in the Biology Department at Ball State to teach genetics. One of the most important reasons for coming to Ball State was the start-up package I was offered. A start-up is the money you need to start your lab, to get gear, buy kits or reagents. Ball State offering such a competitive start-up showed me that were investing in my research and giving me an opportunity to succeed.

What will be your research focus?

I’m going to be continuing work in spiders, which I have been working on for the past 6 years. We have a lot of data left over from many studies. The major project I am working on right now is with a spider called the Darwin’s Bark spider, endemic to Madagascar. It makes the biggest webs of any kind of spider. Many spiders make multiple different types of silk, each type by a different gland. We focus on one particular type of silk called dragline silk. Dragline keeps spiders from falling – they will play out this line so that if they get knocked off of something then they can lower themselves down. When they make the web, this is the type of silk that forms the frames of the web. It is the toughest biomaterial that we know of, and the Darwin’s Bark spider has the toughest known silk of any spider. But for scientific research there’s a very specific definition of toughness. As opposed to things such as tensile strength and other things, toughness is the total amount of energy input that it takes to break it. Toughness-wise, not tensile strength, but toughness, its tougher than Kevlar. It takes more energy to break on a per unit basis than Kevlar does.

Darwin’s bark spider (scientific name Caerostris darwini) produces the largest known orb webs, ranging from 900 to 28,000 square centimeters. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

There has been interest in the past on making artificial silks that can be woven into bullet-proof vests that are very lightweight. So, we are trying to elucidate exactly how these spiders make this really tough silk at the molecular level. The spiders also manipulate the silk as they make it, and that does affect the material properties of the silk, like by how fast they pull it out for example. We are focusing a lot on the expression of genes and also the proteins that get into the silk itself. We work on characterizing what these molecules are and looking for novel molecules. One of the first things we found is that there is in fact a novel molecule, in fact this spider has in fact a few of them, and the Darwin’s Bark spider is using a novel molecule in its silk that we never would have known of by studying other spiders.

We have also done a lot of venom stuff in the past. Again, this research is focused on molecular characterization. We want to know what are the venom molecules that a given species has. We did this in the black widow spider and greatly expanded the number of known toxin molecules – molecules that have some sort of bioactivity in the prey in order to paralyze it so that the spiders can consume it. We found a lot of novel stuff. We dissect out the spider’s specialized venom glands and then we sequence all of the genes that are expressed in that venom gland. In that way we can find lots and lots of potential novel toxins, because they have to be expressed in the gland in order to get into the venom.

What is the end-goal, the broader implications, of this research?

My background is not medical, but there is a lot of interest from pharmaceutical companies in these bio-active molecules that are found in venom. This is because it turns out that a lot of these bio-active molecules are very specific, meaning they target a specific physiological system within the prey. If you want to look for molecules that have good potential as drugs one of the places to start is specificity, because that leads to less side-effects, since it is only targeting on specific system.

I’m more of a kind of scientist who just likes to figure things out, I don’t have a particular connection with the commercial development. It’s not that I would disdain it, I just don’t really have that expertise in drug development.

What are some of your teaching-specific goals for your first year here?

I’m teaching two sections of genetics and within the students in the class there is a wide range of levels of interest. I know it can be a hard class, but I want them to have fun and transfer some of my enthusiasm to them. Even if it’s just for a day or two.

Meet other new faculty members of the College of Sciences and Humanities by visiting these posts on Dr. Shiau-Yun Chen and Dr. Ellen Whitehead!