What could save on the process of colouring silk? The answer is to have the silkworms produce already-coloured thread. This has been done before by feeding them fluorescent dyes, but the new way involves genetically modifying the animals to incorporate genes for fluorescence. This means making the silkworms transgenic, incorporating genes from other species.
Creating the glowing silks meant borrowing from organisms that already produce fluorescent molecules. Scientists inserted the DNA sequences that produce these foreign fluorescent proteins into the silkworm genome, creating what’s called a transgenic animal. One batch got a red, glowing protein normally found in Discosoma corals; another got a glowing orange protein from the Fungia concinna coral. The third strain incorporated the green fluorescent protein derived from jellyfish.
As the silkworms spun, coloured threads were produced, and the colours stayed bright for over two years. It needed some new technology to prevent the manufacturing process from destroying the fluorescence, but they managed it. So now we can add fluorescent clothing to the list of things these talented little Bombyx mori have produced, a list that includes spider silk, human coillagen proteins and glowing proteins. Already the fluorescent silks have found their way into high fashion wedding dresses as well as everyday suits and ties. Hmm, I wonder if they do fluorescent silk bow ties. It could look rather cool…
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