Technology

The race to put silk in just about everything


Johns injects less than a tenth of a teaspoon of a mixture of silk and hyaluronic acid through a special catheter that is threaded through his endoscope. He keeps his patients awake for the injection, sitting upright in this leather chair. The process ends in about two minutes. Results are visible immediately like other vocal fold injections. The gel holds the tissue together, stabilizing the anatomy so healthy tissue can grow and take over. “These people are very happy,” Jones says. “This is kind of a life-changing procedure for them.”

The study with Johns will last about two years, but SilkVoice is already licensed for human use. So far, Huang Lindsey says, the majority of the 40 people who received the injections have kept their improvements.

Meanwhile, Boston-based A startup called Mori has quietly marketed silk as a way to protect food.

As a postdoctoral doctor in materials engineering at Omenetto’s lab in 2014, Benedetto Marelli accidentally invented a food waste fix. “We were running a cooking competition in the lab where we had to cook with silk,” Marelli says. He envisioned dipping strawberries in regenerated silkworm silk, as if it were a clear fondue. The result was disappointing. He lost the competition and pushed the strawberry aside and forgot about it. A week later, half of them were completely rotten. The others still look fresh. The silk protein created a thin layer corresponding to the surface of the fruit. Marelli says the water stayed inside, the oxygen stayed outside. The bacteria digest silk so slowly that they do not contaminate the product buried below.

With this idea in mind, in 2016 Marelli launched Cambridge Crops, now known as Mori, to tackle food waste and insecurities by coating perishables to make them last longer. “I like to use the zucchini pasta example,” says Adam Burns, CEO and co-founder of Mori. Unlike wax, Mori paint can adhere to porous and water-repellent surfaces, such as the outside and inside of zucchini.

The company is integrating spray paint — or dip paint, like Marelli’s happy accident — directly into its food washing and packaging operations. For example, leafy greens and cherries often go through cleaning cycles before reaching the groceries. (Marelli, now an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, remains a consultant and shareholder but has abandoned her operations.)

Last year, a panel of allergists, toxicologists and nutritionists classified the paint as “generally recognized as safe,” meaning the public can buy it and eat it. Morey already has pilots working on farms and food companies across the United States, and large-scale manufacturing should begin later this year.

These startups aren’t the only ones focusing on silkworm silk. Vaxess, another branch of Tufts, makes disposable microneedle patches for dispensing vaccines. Their patch keeps sensitive vaccine antigens at the tip of silky micro-needles, and can work with conventional vaccines already approved by the Food and Drug Administration. They aim to make shelf-stable vaccines that are easy to deploy, according to Kluge. The Gates Foundation has supported some of its animal experiments, and Kluge says the first phase of human safety studies should begin early next year. (Omenetto and Kaplan are scientific founders of Vaxess, Mori, and Sofregen.)

While raising silkworms تر They could spit nine cocoons from the Eiffel Towers every year, scientists did not give in to trying to convince other creatures of the same. “Spider silk is stronger than silkworm silk, and it is more flexible,” says Lewis, a former University of Wyoming biologist who has taken charge of the BioSteel goat herd. (He is now in Utah).

But spider cultivation is still out of the question. Lewis has spent decades searching for an alternative solution. In the late 1980s, he consulted with a company that had come up with a way to synthesize long, repeating chains of amino acids — new proteins. They asked him if he could use that to make spider silk. “The problem was that there was virtually no protein information on the spider silk,” Lewis says.



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