Professor Pamela Zobel-Thropp researches spider venom in the Binford Spider Lab. Photo by Aidan D'Anna

LC biology professors research spider venom

Do not be fooled by Pamela Zobel-Thropp’s title as visiting professor. For almost 20 years, she has been a biology professor and researcher at Lewis & Clark. Zobel-Thropp’s background is in molecular biology and biochemistry, so when Professor of Biology Greta Binford needed someone to look at proteins in the Binford Spider Lab, Zobel-Thropp fit the bill. Thus, a self-professed arachnophobic molecular biologist became a spider venom expert.

The Binford Spider Lab sits at the intersection of bioinformatics, molecular biology, biochemistry and evolutionary biology. Binford is a nationally-acclaimed arachnologist due to her work with spider venom. Binford and Zobel-Thropp were recently published in the journal Frontiers in Evolution and Ecology with their chemical analysis of pholcid (daddy long-legs) venom.

“It’s a really neat team because (Binford) asks evolution-based questions about venom, and me being very detail-oriented with DNA and proteins, it’s a great match,” Zobel-Thropp said. “We can ask a lot of really big questions and put it all together.”

Research in the spider lab centers around spider venom. Their current project, funded by the National Science Foundation, focuses on evolutionary analysis of brown recluse spiders and other members of the Loxosceles and Sicarius genera. Their research aims to explore the role of venom in these species, and how it varies between them. This research could help to develop treatments for bites from any of these species.

“Venoms are being tapped for a lot of resources, in terms of medicine, in terms of agriculture … nobody knows a lot about them but they’re chock-full of very interesting chemicals,” Zobel-Thropp said. “We’re sitting on a mountain of data that can be used for stuff like that.”

Because her work is on the molecular level, Zobel-Thropp did not expect her research to turn into fieldwork. 

“I went on a collecting trip in Texas and that was it — I became an arachnologist,” Zobel-Thropp said.

Spending time outside camping, talking to people, and getting on her hands and knees to collect specimens allowed her to explore a very different side of her field.

“Working with DNA at the bench, that’s stuff you can’t see,” Zobel-Thropp said. “Being out there and collecting the specimen that’s gonna give you this information just opened new doors for me.”

Work in the lab opens new doors for students too. Students participate in all levels of research, from field collecting to venom protein analysis to studying gene codes. They milk venom, inject crickets and flies and investigate venom potency.

Zobel-Thropp learns just as much from her students as she does from the research.

“There’s always a waitlist of students who want to work in our lab,” Zobel-Thropp said. “We are super lucky to have students at LC that are so passionate. We have high expectations, and they’ve always been met.”

Ellen Richards ’20 is a biology major and computer science minor who started working in the spider lab summer 2019. Now she is pursuing her passion for bioinformatics through her senior thesis in the lab.

“I’ve been using computational skills and programming … to look at the evolutionary history and genetic structure of this family of proteins,” Richards said. “What I’m doing now is … a deep dive into the phylogenetic evolutionary history of this family of proteins that we study in the lab.”

Richards expressed gratitude for the guidance of Zobel-Thropp and Binford.

“They’re so good about teaching me new things, helping me teach myself,” Richards said. “They’ve been so willing to help me and other students through every single step … I’m learning so much about myself as a learner and about being a researcher.”

The research being conducted in the spider lab has the potential to reach much further than LC’s biology department. 

“It’s hard to get money for research, but we’re still getting funded … it says a lot about the power of our research,” Zobel-Thropp said. “My path is leading towards expressing these proteins and figuring out what they do.”

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