Edible Optics, Implantable Electronics
MEDFORD, Mass., Aug. 11, 2010 — A decade of research has yielded new uses for an ancient material: silk fibers.
Thanks to their amazing mechanical properties as well as their looks, silk fibers have been important materials in textiles, medical sutures and even armor for 5000 years.
Silk spun by spiders and silkworms combines high strength and extensibility unmatched by synthetics, even though silk is made from a relatively simple protein processed from water.
But in recent years, scientists have begun to unravel the secrets of silk.
"Silk-based materials have been transformed in just the past decade from the commodity textile world to a growing web of applications in more high technology directions," said Fiorenzo Omenetto and David Kaplan, biomedical engineering researchers at Tufts University whose work is published in the July issue of the journal Science.
Fundamental discoveries about how silk fibers are made have shown that chemistry, molecular biology and biophysics all play a role in the process. These discoveries have provided the basis for a new generation of applications for silk materials, from medical devices and drug delivery to electronics.
Tougher than a bullet-proof vest yet synonymous with beauty and luxury, silks spun by worms and spiders are a masterpiece of nature whose properties have yet to be fully replicated in the laboratory. But Tufts University biomedical engineers report that success in unraveling the secrets of silk is taking silk from the world of textiles to technology. This silk card shows diffractive optics entirely constituted by pure silk obtained by pouring silk solution on nanopatterned molds and letting the solution dry and crystallize. The resulting film retains the pattern and is a free-standing optical component so flexible it can be rolled up. (Image: Fiorenzo Omenetto/Tufts University)
The study notes that the development of silk hydrogels, films, fibers and sponges is enabling advances in photonics and optics, nanotechnology, electronics, and adhesives and microfluidics, as well as engineering of bone and ligaments. Because silk fiber formation does not rely on complex or toxic chemistries, such materials are biologically and environmentally friendly, even able to integrate with living systems.
Down the silk road of the future, Kaplan and Omenetto believe applications could include degradable and flexible electronic displays for sensors that are biologically and environmentally compatible and implantable optical systems for diagnosis and treatment. Progress in "edible optics" and implantable electronics has already been demonstrated by Kaplan and Omenetto, John Rogers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and others.
Many challenges remain. Kaplan and Omenetto say that key questions include how to fully replicate native silk assembly in the lab, how best to mimic silk protein sequences via genetic engineering to scale up materials production, and how to use silk as a model polymer to spur new synthetic polymer designs that mimic natural silk's green chemistry.
Techniques for reprocessing natural silk protein in the lab continue to advance. Silks are also being cloned and expressed in a variety of hosts, including E. coli bacteria, fungi, plants and mammals, and through transgenic silkworms.
One day, efficient transgenic plants could be used to crop silk in much the same way that cotton is harvested today, the Tufts researchers note in their paper. In some regions, silk production might create a new microeconomy, as demand grows and production techniques improve.
"Based on the recent and rapid progression of silk materials from the ancient textile use into a host of new high-technology applications, we anticipate growth in the use of silks in a wide platform of applications will continue as answers to these remaining questions are obtained," say Omenetto and Kaplan.
Support for this research on silk comes from the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, Air Force Office of Science Research and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
For more information, visit: www.tufts.edu
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