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Pitching ideas to living organisms

05 January 2022

7 min. to read

© Derya Irkdas Dogu
Giving silkworms unfamiliar surfaces on which to spin their silk has produced remarkable results – and has reinvented the traditional process in a way that means they no longer have to be boiled alive in their cocoons.

“I was trained to design for living organisms,” says Derya Irkdas Dogu, who has an MA and PhD in industrial design and who currently lectures at Turkey’s Izmir University of Economics. “But I never considered working with them. This all changed when I became involved in a bio-design project in 2016 with bees.”

A different perspective on nature

“I was fascinated,” she continues. “You have much less control over the process. You basically pitch your idea to living organisms, but don’t know how they will respond. In bio-design, we are not the gods; we are merely collaborators. That’s what I love so much about it. You look at nature from a different perspective.” Since then, Derya has worked with mushroom mycelia, bacteria and algae. And, on show at DDW 2021, was a project of hers featuring the Bombyx Mori, better known as the silkworm.

“Silkworms have been domesticated for thousands of years,” she says. “When it’s time to hatch from their silk cocoons, they emit an acidic substance to burn their way out. This damages the silk, making it impossible to spin it into a continuous thread. So, to preserve the silk, the cocoon is boiled with the moth still inside. What I wanted to do was explore how to produce silk without killing them.”

Making silk sheets instead of cocoons

What Derya discovered was that, although silkworms are genetically coded to cocoon, if you give them a different structure than they are used to, usually consisting of a frame and string, they adapt immediately. Instead of spinning a cocoon, they produce exactly the same amount of silk but instead use it to create a sheet-like surface, which looks like transparent plastic. “The sheet is a spun surface,” she says. “It’s just like a piece of fabric. You can wash it and rub it, and it is still fine; it’s really strong. We’re going to further test it in the lab to find out exactly what we can do with it. Alternatively, you could spin this into a thread, which would just be the same as conventional silk thread.”

Derya and her team experimented with various ideas to see how the silkworms respond. “For example, we put multiple silkworms on a frame that was 1 m long and 30 cm wide. They spun across the whole surface and created something resembling a silk scarf. It’s almost like a finished product.”

“I’ve placed them on numerous different structures, and they amaze me each time,” she continues. “First, they move around to understand the structure, and after that they start spinning. They have an inbuilt ability to spin towards the centre. We’ve also noticed that the more depth and height you give them, the more intensely they spin.”

Solving the problem of the homeless silkworms

There’s one potential problem with giving the silkworms different structures to perform their magic on: they don’t have cocoons in which to transform into moths. Derya has a solution for that as well. “I make them reusable 3D printed ones using biodegradable polylactic acids, so they have an environment and experience that resembles their natural cycle,” she says. “We identify the moment the silkworms are ready, place them in the printed cocoons, and they emerge as moths.”

The biggest impact of this approach is, of course, that the moths survive. “We have a long tradition of silk production in Turkey, especially as a family business in the villages, but it’s been declining over the years,” she says. “From a cultural perspective, it’s important we keep this going. But there was a need to adapt the process so we don’t harm the silkworms.”

Meanwhile, the exploration continues. “I’m experimenting with elliptical 3D printed cocoons, irregular shapes, ones that look like peanuts,” says Derya. “I’m also collaborating with (bio) engineers in universities to see if the spun silk can be used directly without a secondary process.”

Just do it

And that’s not all. “Silkworms can sense a void,” she continues. “So, if they were given a garment with a hole in it, could they mend it? Their ability to adapt is incredible. I didn’t train them to spin on a different surface, or to go into a 3D printed cocoon and come out as a moth. They just do it.”

© Derya Irkdas Dogu