Up on the roof of Professor Fritz Vollrath's lab in the zoology department atOxford University, there is a makeshift greenhouse in which he nurtures his favourite golden orb web spiders. Walking into the greenhouse is a little like finding yourself inside one of those Damien Hirst vitrines that dramatise fast-forward life and death. The air is frenzied with the buzz of flies and thick with the smell of rotting fruit; look up and dozens of the mature African spiders, three inches across, are sitting pretty on elaborate webs among the foliage, clearly living the arachnid life of Riley. Vollrath points out their offspring, thousands of tiny spiderlings, scurrying about on leaves beneath.

It seems a good place to ask him exactly how he first got interested in spiders and their webs. He laughs and turns the question around. "The strange thing to me," he says, "was always the question of why scientists were not more interested in them. I mean, here is a creature which, according to its size, can build from its own body a structure on the scale of a football pitch overnight, every night, and can catch the equivalent of an aeroplane in it. Why would you not want to study how it did that?"

There were more practical reasons, too. Vollrath was a graduate student of neurophysiology when he started looking at webs and spider silks in earnest. "To do any small thing in neurophysiology, you had to read an awful lot of scientific literature. With spiders, I realised there was hardly any literature at all. You could just do a lot of looking."

His fascination with spider silk began when he was at university in Munich in 1972 and the lightweight, high-tensile Olympic park, designed by Frei Otto to mimic spider-web construction, created a new imaginative framework for architecture. Vollrath, who speculated that spider silk might generate a similar revolutionary shift in the emergent field of biomaterials, was snared.

In the years since, he has probably spent more time studying how spiders spin their everyday miracles than any man alive. He has fed spiders drugs, tiny droplets of amphetamines and caffeine, and measured the dramatic disruptive effect it has on their web building. He has tested ways of training spiders with a tuning fork and discovered how to make them to "write" in their webs – the Vollrath Christmas card of 1988 featured a picture of a web in which he had "taught" a spider to write the number "88" by manipulating the orientation of the web as the spider worked. Mostly, though, Vollrath has defined a pioneering area of study into the properties of spider silks that not only promises to revolutionise various polymer industries, but also could have huge potential medical benefits for humans in everything from knee replacements to nerve repair to heart transplants.