The World’s Most Valuable Worms
The Cocoons of Wild Silk Moths are Hard to Unravel but Highly Sought
by Rosalinda Villegas, age 15
A newly-discovered technique might expand the use of wild silk worms. That could lead to new silk production in regions other than Asia.
According to Dr. Fitz Vollrath, zoologist from the University of Oxford, “silk uses very little space, and it’s a very high value product….As an agricultural product it really, seriously offers something to regions of poverty.”
Most commercial silk today comes from domesticated silk worms and their cocoons. Human use of silk from silk worms most likely originated nearly 6,000 years ago in China. These worms have been bred for thousands of years to produce cocoons that are easy to unravel and dye into silk. Other wild silkworm species’ cocoons are not as easy to unravel, making it difficult to expand the silk industry.
To encourage the growth of a silk industry in new regions beyond Asia, a newly discovered technique might make the unraveling process faster and easier for workers. Researchers from England and Kenya discovered a way to use an acidic solution to remove the mineral layer that coats the worms’ cocoons.
Researchers tested many solutions, eventually finding one that removed the cocoon without harming the silk and making it easier to unroll long strands. This method could also lead to greater silk production in Africa and South America. The climate in both continents is well suited for the wild worms. Dr. Vollrath and his colleagues are hoping to patent their new technique.
The textures and colors of wild silk worms differ from silk produced by domesticated worms. Wild silk is highly valued by the fashion industry, which provides economic incentive to expand production outside of China and around the world.
[Source: The New York Times]