Mineral discovery reels in wild silk harvest

19 May 2011

A new way of treating wild silkmoth cocoons could see new silk industries springing up wherever wild silk is found in Africa and South America, as well as silk’s Asian heartland.

A team led by Oxford University scientists found that the surfaces of wild cocoons are coated with a layer of the mineral calcium oxalate, which makes them difficult to unravel.

When the researchers removed this layer using an acidic solution they discovered that it was possible to reel cocoons into long strands of silk comparable to those derived from the domesticated Mulberry silk moth (Bombyx mori).

The team publish a report of their research this week in the American Chemical Society’s journal Biomacromolecules.

Unlike traditional ways of treating wild silk cocoons – such as degumming using pineapple juice, carding and hand-spinning – our new method softens the cocoon so that it can be reeled but does not damage the strands which give silk its sought-after properties,’ said Tom Gheysens of Oxford University’s Department of Zoology, who led the work with Oxford supervisor Professor Fritz Vollrath. ‘The demineralising process makes it possible, for the first time, to create long continuous strands of silk from wild cocoons producing a high quality wild silk which is, potentially, a match for the ‘farmed’ variety.’

The researchers tested their new technique on the cocoons of the wild silkworm Gonometa postica. They found that, unlike traditional methods, their technique, using a warm solution of EDTA (Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid), softens the cocoons enough they can be reeled like farmed silk without collapsing the cocoon fibres that make them strong and durable.

‘Whilst these experiments were with the wild silkmoth Gonometa postica our findings suggest that the cocoons of other wild silkmoth species could be treated and reeled using this method,’ said Professor Vollrath of Oxford University’s Department of Zoology. ‘This has the potential to bring a ‘wild silk revolution’ to places such as Africa and South America where wild silk is abundant but which are unsuited to domestic silk farming.’

Other wild silkmoth species with commercial silk-producing potential include Antheraea mylitta, Antheraea pernyi, Cricula andrei, and Samia canninggii. 

For more information contact Fritz Vollrath on +44 (0)1865 271216 or email fritz.vollrath@zoo.ox.ac.uk

Images of Gonometa postica can be downloaded at: http://www.ox.ac.uk/media/news_releases_for_journalists/110518.html

Alternatively contact the University of Oxford Press Office on +44 (0)1865 283877 or email press.office@admin.ox.ac.uk

Notes for editors

  •  A report of the research, entitled “Demineralization enables reeling of Wild Silkmoth cocoons”, is published this week in the American Chemical Society’s journal Biomacromolecules.
  • The authors acknowledge funding from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the European Union, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.