Engineers and wide-eyed futurologists alike believe the future of technologies and materials lie in nanomaterials. These microscopic structures represent some of the most cutting-edge engineering on the planet, and the potential applications of graphene and carbon nanotubes so far seem limitless. Medical researchers have already begun testing nanomaterials as weapons in the war against antibiotic-resistant germs, and neuroscientists are developing methods to control neural pathways using injectable silicon nanostructures.

Graphene nanotubes are predicted to be the material of the future.

Now, nanotechnology researchers at the Center for Nano and Micro Mechanics at Tsinghua University in Beijing have found a method to blend the natural world with the nanotech world, thanks to the digestive systems of silk worms.

A Bombyx mori larvae, up-close and personal. Gross.

In their recent Nanoletters publication, these engineers have found that feeding Bombyx mori silkworm larvae a steady diet of mulberry leaves sprayed with water-based graphene molecules and carbon nanotubes results in the silkworms producing electrically-conductive, super-strong silk:

In this work, we report mechanically enhanced silk directly collected by feeding Bombyx mori larval silkworms with single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWNTs) and graphene. We found that parts of the fed carbon nanomaterials were incorporated into the as-spun silk fibers, whereas the others went into the excrement of silkworms.

The resulting silk is reported to be at least 50% stronger than conventional silk and displays a highly ordered crystalline structure. The researchers note, however, that much of the material is still being excreted by the animal without being incorporated into the silk. New methods of producing a higher rate of absorption are being tested.

A mature Bombyx mori moth.

These materials are being eyed for applications in flexible or wearable electronics, super-strength fabrics, and even medical implants. Questions still remain, however, about what effects the nanomaterials could have on the worms themselves.

Such conductive silks could be used to create flexible electronics.

Could these engineers be creating indestructible super worms? Probably not. However, these experiments and others like it are pushing the boundaries of animal research into unknown territory. 

Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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