Technology

The race to add silk to almost everything

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Johns injected less than one-tenth of a teaspoon of a mixture of silk and hyaluronic acid through a special catheter connected to an endoscope. He asked his patient to stay awake during the injection and sit on the artificial leather chair. The process ends in about two minutes. Like other vocal cord injections, the results appear immediately. The gel expands the tissue and strengthens the anatomical structure until healthy tissue can regenerate and take over. “These people are very happy,” Johns said. “These are life-changing procedures for them.”

The research with Johns will last about two years, but SilkVoice has been authorized for human use. So far, Hoang-Lindsay said that most of the 40 people who received the injection have maintained their progress.

At the same time, a company located in Boston A start-up company called Mori has quietly commercialized silk as a way to protect food.

In 2014, as a postdoctoral fellow in materials engineering at Omenetto’s laboratory, Benedetto Marelli accidentally invented a way to solve food waste. “We held a cooking competition in the laboratory and we had to cook with silk,” Marelli said. He envisioned immersing strawberries in regenerated silk, as if it were a clear hot pot. The results are disappointing. He lost the game, threw the strawberries aside, and then forgot about them. One week later, half of them had completely rotted. The others still look very fresh. Silk protein forms a thin layer that conforms to the surface of the fruit. Marelli said that the water stays inside and the oxygen stays outside. Bacteria digest silk silk too slowly to contaminate the product buried underneath.

Based on this idea, Magneti Marelli launched the Cambridge crop in 2016, now known as Mori, to address food waste and insecurity by coating perishable foods to extend their lifespan. “I like to use zucchini noodles as an example,” said Adam Behrens, CEO and co-founder of Sen. Unlike wax, Mori’s coating can adhere to waterproof and porous surfaces, such as the exterior and interior of zucchini.

The company is integrating spraying – or dip coating, like Marelli’s accident – directly into the food cleaning and packaging process. For example, green leafy vegetables and cherries usually go through a cleaning cycle before reaching the grocery store. (Marelli Marelli is now an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. She is still a consultant and shareholder, but has withdrawn from their business.)

Last year, a team of allergists, toxicologists, and nutritionists designated the coating as “generally recognized as safe”, meaning that the public can buy and consume it. Mori is already piloting farms and food companies across the United States, and a larger manufacturing plan will begin later this year.

These startups are not the only startups that focus on silk. Vaxess, another spin-off company of Tufts, produces disposable silk microneedle patches to dispense vaccines. Their patch stores sensitive vaccine antigens in the tiny tips of silk microneedles and can be used with conventional FDA-approved vaccines. Kluge stated that their goal is to make shelf-stable vaccines that are easier to deploy. The Gates Foundation supports some of their animal experiments, and Kruger said that the first phase of human safety research should begin early next year. (Omenetto and Kaplan are the scientific co-founders of Vaxess, Mori, and Sofregen.)

Although breeding silkworms Nine Eiffel Tower cocoons can be spit out every year, and scientists have not given up trying to coax the same thing from other creatures. “Spider silk is stronger and more elastic than silk,” said Lewis, a former University of Wyoming biologist who took over the BioSteel goat herd. (He is in Utah now.)

But spider breeding is still impossible. So Lewis spent decades looking for a solution. In the late 1980s, he advised a company that found a way to assemble long repeating chains of amino acids—new proteins. They asked him if he could use it to make spider silk. “The problem is that there is almost no protein information on spider silk,” Lewis said.

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