Printing from silk, the hard way

The video above is an example of how MIT’s Mediated Matter research group takes ideas from nature and studies how they can be applied to the technology of tomorrow. They used silkworms to study how a large-scale structure could successfully incorporate 3d-printed materials by weaving a frame upon which 6,500 silkworms were left to weave the bulk of the panels. The result is pretty interesting, to say the least.

Did you know that the silkworm just happens to be the most genetically modified creature on the planet? It’s true; while the domestication of a particular animal might go farther back for a few animals, the silkworm has been used and selectively bred for over 5,000 years. Today’s silkworms can produce ten times the amount of silk that they could back then, with a higher quality because they’re healthier, more robust, and disease-resistant due to the eugenic practices of breeders. This is a good thing, but comes at a cost: they’re very tolerant to being handled by humans, have little to no fear of predators, the moths cannot fly, and they are no longer able to breed on their own, meaning that the species is dependent upon humans for survival. In other words, if we were to disappear tomorrow in some Life After People scenario, the silkworms we know today would disappear.

In the meantime, however, the University of Notre Dame has successfully genetically modified silkworms that spin cocoons from spider silk, which “could possibly be used to make sutures, artificial limbs, and parachutes.” A lab in Singapore researches using electrical fields to coax silkworms into producing “super silk” that is so strong that it is bullet-proof, which has possible applications in the manufacture of body armor and helmets. Silk even has applications as scaffolding for tissue regrowth and sub-dermal drug delivery.

That’s why playing with worms, while it may be kind of gross, is actually pretty darn cool.

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