Dye-Fed Silkworms Cut Silk Industry's Water Consumption

silk worms at work photo

Photo by Richard Monckton via Flickr Creative Commons

The silk worms above are hard at work doing their thing. After they form cocoons, the cocoons will be collected and processed into silk threads, yarn and so on. However, part of that process includes dying the silk -- something that is water intensive and often involves chemicals that aren't so eco-friendly. So what if the silk came out of the worm the color we wanted it, and we could avoid the process altogether? Reserachers are already on it with creating a special diet for silk worms that turns them, and their silk, bright colors. Customizing Silkworm Diet Could Improve Silk Colors, Even Add Medicinal Properties
The researchers have published their work in Advanced Materials , and as New Scientist writes, "A special diet is all it takes to make a silkworms produce fluorescent silk of a particular hue."

The researchers from Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE) in Singapore found that producing "intrinsically colored" silks, which would lighten the footprint of the silk industry, is possible through a diet of mulberries -- the usual food of silkworms -- and fluorescent dye.

It is cost effective for silkworm farms, and is scalable.

Not only could the method be used for colored silks, but it could also work for silk worms spinning fibers with antibacterial or anti-inflammatory properties for use in the medical field.

Dye-Fed Silk Worms Could Be Next Generation Silk Farming
The Australian Geographic writes that Dr. Natalia Tansil, lead researcher, found the team could collect silk that was structurally unaffected, yet brightly colored and with luminescent properties.

"The new, more environmentally friendly method allows us to integrate colours into the very fabric of silk and does away with the need for manual dyeing," says Dr Natalia Tansil, lead researcher behind the technology at the Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE) in Singapore.

The dye is added to the silkworm diet for only the last four days of the larva stage before the worms create their cocoons. The worms turn the color of the dye, as does their silk. This is the only difference between the new method, and the traditional method.

A Great Idea, But Definitely Environmentally Friendly?
Exactly how great it is to feed worms this fluorescent dye is questionable -- though in most silkworm farms the worms are killed while still in the cocoon anyway. Also, the environmental footprint of this method (what is the short term and long term impact of the fluorescent dyes in the environment as well as for those who work with and wear the silk) versus that of the traditional dye method is something we're curious to learn more about.

The researchers are already working with potential partners to scale up the process and bring it to market.

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