Can silk ever be animal friendly?

Recently we discussed the production of animal friendly cultured leather. In this post we will discuss whether silk can be produced in an animal friendly method.

Chemically silk is a protein fiber made of two proteins, siricin and fibroin, and is normally produced by silk worms. These caterpillars use silk to build their cocoon. In order to harvest humans usually put the cocoons in boiling water, and thereby killing the silk worms. This procedure makes silk unacceptable for some people for reasons of animal welfare.

Because silk is nothing but protein, it would be possible to develop through genetic engineering plants which produce silk proteins. This means that the silk genes have to be implanted in a suitable plant. What plant will be chosen depends on how easy it will be to extract the silk proteins. When the proteins are extracted, it will be processed into fibers.

Genetic engineering has been studied by scientists to produce spider silk, and there is no a priori reason why this approach cannot be used to produce ordinary silk. The main benefit of plant silk is that it will no longer be necessary to kill animals for the production of silk. This is an example how genetic engineering can be used to promote animal welfare.

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