Silk Solutions: Revealing the Mysteries of Organic Substances to Craft a Better World

Silk-based Technology: Revealing the Mysteries of Organic Substances to Craft a Better World | The Lifesciences Magazine

Using silk-based technology, Professor Benedetto Marelli is able to assist crops grow and preserve perishable commodities “from lab to fork.”

As a child in Milan, Benedetto Marelli enjoyed dissecting objects. He fixed malfunctioning electronics just to get a chance to disassemble and reassemble them. He also had a great desire to have a constructive influence on the world since he was little. When he enrolled at Milan’s Polytechnic University, he decided to major in engineering.

According to Marelli, the Paul M. Cook Career Development Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at MIT, “engineering seemed like the right fit to fulfil my passions at the intersection of discovering how the world works, together with understanding the rules of nature and harnessing this knowledge to create something new that could positively impact our society.”

Explore the World of Biomedical Engineering

Since biomedical engineering was the closest thing to biological engineering at the time, Marelli made the decision to concentrate on it. In order to advance agricultural and human health, he adds, “I liked the idea of pursuing studies that provided me with a background to engineer life.”

Following graduation, Marelli worked as a postdoc at the biomaterials Silklab at Tufts University before receiving a PhD in materials science and engineering from McGill University. Following his postdoc, Markus Buehler, MIT’s McAfee Professor of Engineering, attracted Marelli to the Department of Civil and Environmental Studies mostly due to his research on how to create new materials by comprehending the architecture of existing ones.

Marelli states, “This spoke to my background and my belief in utilising nature’s building blocks to create a more sustainable society.” “Moving from biomedical engineering to civil and environmental engineering was a significant advancement for me. It meant realising what I could teach and how to mentor students in a new discipline of engineering, as well as radically altering my community. I could clearly see a relationship between what I was doing and what I could be doing because Markus is working with silk-based technology to research how to build better materials. I was lucky enough to work with him and see him as one of my mentors at MIT.

Silk-based Technology Research and its Worldwide Effect

According to Marelli, his research aims to mitigate a number of urgent worldwide issues.

“Soil restoration, reducing the environmental impact of fertilisers, boosting food production to provide food security to an ever-increasing population, and addressing stressors coming from climate change are societal challenges that need the development of rapidly scalable and deployable technologies,” he says.

Marelli and his colleagues have created coverings made of natural silk that boost crop productivity in drought-stricken areas, help seeds produce better plants, and prolong the shelf life of food by delivering biofertilizers to seeds sown in salty, unproductive soils. According to Marelli, the technologies have shown great promise and performed well in field testing being carried out in Morocco in partnership with the Mohammed VI Polytechnic University in Ben Guerir.

Marelli, who recently received tenure, says, “I think we have a real opportunity to positively impact planetary health and find new solutions that work in both rural settings and highly modernised agricultural fields with silk-based technology and the common efforts shared by the MIT PIs participating in the Climate Grand Challenge on Revolutionising Agriculture.”

The Use of Silk-based Technology in High Tech Applications and Regenerative Medicine – David Kaplan/Fio Omenetto

Honours and Business

Marelli, a researcher and entrepreneur, lists his understanding of structural proteins and how to use that understanding to manufacture advanced materials at multiple scales as some of his proudest accomplishments. He has about 20 patents to his name and has received awards such as the Ole Madsen Mentoring Award, the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, and a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation.

Marelli mentions a particular breakthrough he made using a strawberry. He had mistakenly left the fruit on his bench after dipping it in an odourless, tasteless edible silk suspension for a cookery competition in his postdoctoral lab, only to discover a week or two later that it had been preserved.

By reducing food waste and the need for energy-intensive refrigerated shipping, natural polymers can serve as technical materials that can positively impact our society. Marelli claims that the coating of the strawberry to increase its shelf life is difficult to beat in this regard.

Promoting Entrepreneurship in Higher Education

Marelli stated in a journal article published in 2022 that he believed students ought to be encouraged to pursue entrepreneurial endeavours after winning the BioInnovation Institute and Science Prize for Innovation. Although he agreed that becoming an entrepreneur had a high learning curve, he also discussed how research can have an exponentially greater impact.

In more recent times, he developed this concept.

“I think more professors and graduate students ought to attempt getting their hands ‘dirty’ with entrepreneurial endeavours. According to Marelli, “translating what we study in our labs is clearly a good way to employ our students and enhance the global effort to develop new technology that can make our society more sustainable and equitable. We live in a time where academics are called to have a tangible impact on our society.”

Marelli mentions that he finds it extremely satisfying to know that Mori has a product on the market that came out of his research efforts and that 80 people are working to translate the discovery from “lab to fork.” Mori is a spinoff company that grew out of the coated strawberry discovery and develops silk-based products to preserve a wide range of perishable foods.

“The greatest reward of all is knowing that silk-based technology can make a difference in crises like food waste and the environmental impact of food,” he claims.

When students are trying to solve extremely complex problems, Marelli says he advises them to start with a single solution, “however crazy it might be,” and then conduct a thorough literature review to see what other researchers have done and whether “there is any hint that points towards developing their solution.”

“I usually work with them to simplify it as much as possible once we understand the feasibility,” Marelli explains. “After that, we break the problem down into small parts that are addressable in series and/or in parallel.”

That’s still a process of discovery. “I’d like to think it’s the ones that still need to be discovered,” Marelli responds when asked which of his technologies will have the most influence on the globe.

Also Read: 11 Ways Technology Can Help Seniors Live on Their Own

Share Now