Genetic study of silkworm helps unravel its long history of domestication

July 3, 2018 by Bob Yirka, report
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

A team of researchers affiliated with several institutions in China has conducted a genetic study of the silkworm in hopes of better understanding its long historical ties to humans. In their paper published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, the group describes their study and what they found.

There are many varieties of , but only one makes silk that is mass-producible: Bombyx mori. Because of that unique characteristic, B. mori has a very long history of domestication by humans. Most scientists in the field suggest that the relationship began approximately 5000 years ago, and that it likely started in China. In this new effort, the researchers sought to trace the origins of the silkworm to its first domestication to learn more about its history over the past several thousand years.

The genetic study consisted of collecting silkworm samples representing 137 strains. Those samples included strains that were locally bred and even some representing recently improved strains. The team also collected samples of that have not been domesticated. They then sequenced the DNA of all the samples and compared them to one another. The group was able to use the DNA data to construct geographic maps that showed the history of the silkworm as it spread between geographic areas.

The researchers were able to see patterns over time of silkworms being carried eastward, mostly from China to other places along the ancient Silk Road. And while their data strongly points to China as the site of first domestication, the researchers acknowledge that their data still does not provide definitive proof of it. The researchers were also able to trace changes to the silkworms as they became domesticated. They have lost their ability to survive in the wild, the team notes, due to such changes as wings that no longer support flight. They have also lost color, and of course, produce silk fibers that are much larger than needed for protection in their cocoons. The team notes that they were also unable to pinpoint just how long ago first of silkworms occurred, but suggest it was likely in agreement with prior estimates.

Explore further: Altering silkworm genes to cause addition of useful protein into silk production

More information: Hui Xiang et al. The evolutionary road from wild moth to domestic silkworm, Nature Ecology & Evolution (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41559-018-0593-4

The Silk Road, which derives its name from the trade of silk produced by the domestic silkworm Bombyx mori, was an important episode in the development and interaction of human civilizations. However, the detailed history behind silkworm domestication remains ambiguous, and little is known about the underlying genetics with respect to important aspects of its domestication. Here, we reconstruct the domestication processes and identify selective sweeps by sequencing 137 representative silkworm strains. The results present an evolutionary scenario in which silkworms may have been initially domesticated in China as trimoulting lines, then subjected to independent spreads along the Silk Road that gave rise to the development of most local strains, and further improved for modern silk production in Japan and China, having descended from diverse ancestral sources. We find that genes with key roles in nitrogen and amino acid metabolism may have contributed to the promotion of silk production, and that circadian-related genes are generally selected for their adaptation. We additionally identify associations between several candidate genes and important breeding traits, thereby advancing the applicable value of our resources.

Related Stories

GM silkworms bred to spin fluorescent

June 21, 2013

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

Silkworms spinning spider webs

January 3, 2012

( -- 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 of having a large ...

Recommended for you

What rising seas mean for local economies

February 15, 2019

Impacts from climate change are not always easy to see. But for many local businesses in coastal communities across the United States, the evidence is right outside their doors—or in their parking lots.

Where is the universe hiding its missing mass?

February 15, 2019

Astronomers have spent decades looking for something that sounds like it would be hard to miss: about a third of the "normal" matter in the Universe. New results from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory may have helped them ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (1) Jul 04, 2018
My speculation is that a variety of silkworms have been consumed as delicacies since prehistoric times. That is why there are still local varieties collected for snacking.

The original gatherers would have found use for the otherwise discarded cocoons. Such as for swaddling material for infants or packing wounds.

Idly manipulating unused cocoon silk became decorations, maybe even macrame? As each useful product developed so evolved the sophistication of finding new uses for silk. New processes that led to the first attempts at cloth.

The Bombyx mori proved to be domestication friendly. Human selection of what to breed and what to prevent from breeding fortuitously led to the dominant modern silkworm for silk production. And would be adopted by other sericulture regions.

Though many areas still collect regional variations of the silkworm genus for local cuisine.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.