Scientific discoveries are more frequent than you might think. This was the case with penicillin, Viagra, X-rays, and more recently with silk. This material is used to make pajamas, sheets, and shirts, as well as being very useful in other industries, such the medical, agri-food, and the medical sectors.
This Thursday, Benetto Marelli, an Italian biomedical engineer was presented with the BioInnovation institute award
What brought you to study the uses of silk and how did it get there?
Milan, Italy is where I was born. It is a very important city in the fashion world, and silk is very prevalent there. The Silk Institute is where this material and all its medical applications are studied. After completing my biomedical engineering degree, I completed an internship at the Silk Institute, where I learned about the many appearances this material can have. My doctorate was completed in Canada later. I focused my research on medical applications of silk, particularly in the area of bone tissue regeneration. To continue my research, I was later appointed as a postdoc at Tufst University, Boston. There is the SilkLab, which is the largest group of silk researchers in the world.
What inspired you to create a silk coating that would prolong the shelf life for food?
The SilkLab held a contest to encourage the use of silk in the kitchen. It was during my stay there that the contest was won. I applied with the intent of creating a chocolate-strawberry fondue variation. However, the silk was substituted with chocolate, which created an optical effect that resembles a rainbow. The recipe didn't work so I left the lab. A week later, I discovered that the non-silked strawberries had gone bad, but the silk-coated had not.
To prolong the life of food, silk coatings are created. / I died
I was led to believe biomaterials could have positive effects on the agrifood industry by this serendipitous discovery. This inspired me to investigate the use of silk to prolong the shelf life of food. (This he has been able do at the Department of Civil Engineering and Environment at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology). We are now working in Mori's laboratory, where Marelli is co-founder. This includes releasing fertilizers that can increase plant germination and preserving plants during droughts.
How can this silk coating preserve foods?
This coverage is 100% natural and increases the product's shelf life. My research focused on the effects of silk on bananas and strawberries, but Mori is also studying green leafy vegetables such as kale, spinach ...), meats, fish, avocados, cherries, candies, and cereals. Silk has the advantage of not altering the taste, color, or smell of food. It can also be easily modified, which means that its structure and properties can be altered to better suit the preservation requirements of different types of food. products.
It's unlikely that we will floss apples. However, apples have a wax coating in the US and it works well so we wouldn't be wasting time.
-- Will silk replace plastic packaging?
It has been shown that silk can be used as a simple coating to create a thin, transparent and edible all-natural membrane that protects food from spoilage. Although this technology could reduce plastic used in food preservation, it won't replace plastic. Plastic performs an extremely useful function and I believe it can be reduced. Silk can be used to replace plastic in foods that require moisture preservation and avoid oxygen contact.
Will there be enough silk?
There's plenty of it. Although silk is an expensive material, there is still a lot of silk that is not used in textile production. All the silk that isn't used in textile production is turned into a technology material that justifies its cost. China and India are the main producers of silk. This means that we must transport this material between countries if we wish to use it en masse. This has a huge environmental impact. The goal is to develop synthetic silk that can easily be made locally and sustainably.
This technology will soon be available in supermarkets.
It all depends on the regulations in the countries as well as the fact that the company has limited resources. This technology is currently licensed to be used in the United States and Mexico. This year, the first products with silk coatings will be available on the American market. As the company grows, we'll be focusing on other countries like Canada and then moving to Europe.
-- Which other silk applications are your current projects?
Smart labels are being developed to increase food safety at both the consumer and supply chain levels. Many foods have an extremely conservative expiration date. This means that many food items are thrown out after they expire. This also leads to food waste. This label features a microneedle, which extracts fluids from food. It then performs a chemical reaction on the back of the food that displays the pink color if the food is contaminated (the food will need to be disposed off) or the blue color if the food is in good condition. This will allow us to eat food that is still safe, even after the expiration date.
This label can also be used in the supply chain to verify that the food is of high quality. To avoid contamination, supermarkets may throw away whole batches of food when they are alerted for Listeria monocytogenes. This can lead to a lot more food being thrown away than may be necessary. This label allows you to track which foods have come into contact with the pathogen, and reduce food waste. This technology is still in development, but we expect to be able launch it within the next 3-5 years.
How can these new uses of the material impact the climate crisis?
Climate change is a broad problem that has many influences. One of these factors is food. About 20% of the greenhouse gases are produced by agriculture and food. A third of the food we make does not reach the tables. After the USA and China, food waste is the third-largest producer of greenhouse gases. It has a significant environmental impact. It has a significant social impact as well, as we have nearly a billion people who struggle to eat and are constantly wasting food that could be used to feed them all.
Although biomaterials like silk have the potential to solve these problems, their application has largely remained in veterinary or human medicine. My lab's research approach is to change that perception. This means that food waste must be addressed as soon as possible. I believe that technology can help to reduce its impact.
However, I hope that technology will have a positive effect on food culture in some countries, and consequently, their health. In the United States, for example, large portions of the population live in areas that only sell processed foods. This is because they don't have access to fresh food and they spoil quickly. They lose money when they sell. This could be changed by silk's ability extend shelf life.
What does it feel like to be the first recipient of this award?
This is a fantastic opportunity because there aren't many Academy awards that recognize entrepreneurship. The entrepreneurial environment in Academy is also very favorable, especially for graduate students who wish to start their own business and put their inventions and research into practice in real life. I hope this award will inspire others materials scientists to use their technology in agri-food systems.