New silkworm diet produces colored silk and possible medical advantages

March 18, 2011 by Deborah Braconnier, report
Intrinsically colored silk cocoon produced through effective uptake of Rhodamine B into a silkworm. (A) Photographs of a silkworm with modified feed containing Rhodamine B and its resulting colored cocoon. (B) Photographs of a silkworm with normal feed and its resulting white cocoon. Image credit: Natalia C. Tansil, DOI:10.1002/adma.201003860

( -- The Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE) in Singapore has developed a way to replace the traditional dying process necessary to make colored silk. A simple dietary change for the silkworm larva and they are able to produce silk in a variety of colors, with the color directly integrated into the fibers.

The process designed by the researchers involves feeding a diet of mulberries treated with to the in the last four days of the larva stage. Once the silkworms ingest the dye they then turn the color of the dye they were fed. The silkworms then spin their with the resulting color of the silk matching the dye they ingested.

By integrating the dye directly into the silk before it is even spun creates a more environmentally friendly process for adding color to silk. The current process of dying silk requires large amounts of water as well as chemicals, and is extremely time consuming. By refining this process to get the desired colors, the need to dye silks in the traditional way may be eliminated.

Researchers believe that this method can be adapted for large scale farms and is very cost effective. The addition of the dyes to the silkworm diet does not alter the structure of the silk itself, so once the cocoons are spun, they can be harvested and processed utilizing normal procedures.

The integration of dye into the silkworm’s diet to create a colored silk has also opened the door to other possibilities. With the strength of silk itself, it has been used for many years as sutures and wound dressings. Researchers are now looking into the possibility of adding different compounds to the silkworm diet to produce silk with antibacterial, anticoagulant, and anti-inflammatory properties.

This new research holds the benefit of not only reducing the environmental footprint by eliminating the dying process for , but could lead to possible breakthroughs in medical treatments and wound care.

Explore further: Scientists genetically engineer silkworms to produce artificial spider silk (w/ Video)

More information: Intrinsically Colored and Luminescent Silk, by Natalia C. Tansil et al., Advanced Materials, Article first published online: 9 FEB 2011. DOI:10.1002/adma.201003860

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not rated yet Mar 18, 2011
How fascinating. It will be interesting to see all the things that can be done with this new method of silk production.
not rated yet Mar 18, 2011
I'm betting that a majority of their proposed medical benefits will prove fatal or detrimental to the silkworms, but it doesn't hurt to try.

The dye part is a great idea, in addition to the cost/environmental savings, having the dye directly incorporated into the silk is probably far more color safe than other methods.
not rated yet Mar 18, 2011
The silkworms used for silk die anyway. They have to be killed before they can cut a hole in the cocoon to keep the threads intact.

This isn't going to stop dying either. Multi-colored prints like Hawaiian shirts will still need a multi-colored dye process. Colored silk will only help solid colored cloth.

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