Paralysis promises smart silk technology

Sep 19, 2013
Paralysis promises smart silk technology
The silk worm (Bombyx mori) spinning.

(Phys.org) —Oxford University researchers have harnessed the natural defence mechanism of silkworms, which causes paralysis, in what is a major step towards the large-scale production of silks with tailor-made properties.

Professor Fritz Vollrath and colleagues from the Oxford Silk Group at Oxford University's Department of Zoology collected silk directly from paralysed silkworms by injecting a chemical that is naturally produced by the animal. In the wild silkworms produce this hormone when they are injured since, as they move their bodies through , without this self-induced paralysis their wounds would get worse and they would risk 'bleeding out'.

The team's report in the journal Biomacromolecules this week concludes that, in comparison to unparalysed silkworms, paralysis allows longer and more consistent silks to be collected by eliminating the ability of the silkworm to break and alter its silk fibre.

The direct 'forced reeling' of silk has been used in spiders for many years. However, reeling large amounts of silk directly from silkworms has not previously been possible. By tricking the silkworm into performing its natural response to injury and becoming paralysed the Oxford scientists show that it is possible to reel hundreds of meters of silk under full control.

Unlike unravelling , as in the silk , silkworm forced reeling allows the silk properties to be modified to suit particular purposes. This has important implications for the large-scale reeling of silkworms for industrial production of environmentally-friendly fibres for use in a range of applications – from through to super-tough composite panels.

Silkworm paralysis may open the door to a range of silk technologies, using these animals which, unlike spiders, can be farmed at high-densities. Reeling of silk from paralysed worms is the subject of a recent patent, which also highlights the exciting potential for genetically modifying silkworms to induce paralysis 'on-demand', a particularly useful feature for mass-rearing.

'This is an interesting result as the paralysis prevents the breaking the fibre, but still allows silk spinning and collection,' said Beth Mortimer of the Oxford Silk Group, an author of the report.

'The commercial implications of this process are self evident: now we can make silks to order by manipulating the mechanical properties while at the same time adding functionality,' said Professor Vollrath.

Dr Alex Woods, an entomologist and Oxford-based medical researcher responsible for the original discovery said: 'importantly, this may allow us to make high-quality silks with a variety of desirable mechanical properties, in practical quantities, to finally expand this exceptionally well-suited biomaterial into key medical applications.'

A report of the research, entitled 'The forced reeling of Bombyx mori : separating behaviour and processing conditions', is published in this week's Biomacromolecules.

Explore further: Researchers break nano barrier to engineer the first protein microfiber

More information: pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/bm401013k

Related Stories

GM silkworms bred to spin fluorescent

Jun 21, 2013

(Phys.org) —Scientists in Japan have genetically engineered silkworms to create red, green or orange silks that glow under fluorescent lights.

Silkworms spinning spider webs

Jan 03, 2012

(PhysOrg.com) -- A spiders silk is strong and more elastic and has a large range of possible medical applications. However, spiders have a history of being territorial and prone to cannibalism, so the idea ...

Silkworm structures drive push for new materials

May 03, 2012

(Phys.org) -- Research published in the peer-review Journal of the Royal Society Interface on Wednesday presents a close look at the structure and physical properties of silkworm cocoons. The paper’s resear ...

Reeling in a wild silk harvest

May 17, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- A new way of treating wild silkmoth cocoons could see new silk industries springing up wherever wild silk is found in Africa and South America, as well as silk?s Asian heartland.

Recommended for you

World's fastest manufacture of battery electrodes

8 hours ago

New world record: Scientists at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) increased the manufacturing speed of electrode foils coated batch-wise by a factor of three – to 100 meters per minute. This was ...

Waste, an alternative source of energy to petroleum

8 hours ago

The group led by Martín Olazar, researcher in the UPV/EHU-University of the Basque Country's Department of Chemical Engineering, is studying the development of sustainable refineries where it is possible ...

Researchers developing new thermal interface materials

9 hours ago

In the microelectronics world, the military and private sectors alike need solutions to technologic challenges. Dr. Mustafa Akbulut, assistant professor of chemical engineering, and two students lead a project ...

User comments : 0