Biomedical engineers from Tuft’s University have developed a novel silk-based optics that may be used in devices such as sensors which would combine sophisticated nanoscale optics with biological readout functions. In addition, silk optics offer further advantages in that they are biocompatible and biodegradable, and can be manufactured and stored at room temperatures without use of toxic chemicals.
To form the devices, Tufts scientists boiled cocoons of the Bombyx mori silkworm in a water solution and extracted the glue-like sericin proteins. The purified silk protein solution was ultimately poured onto negative molds of ruled and holographic diffraction gratings with spacing as fine as 3600 grooves/mm. The cast silk solution was air dried to create solid fibroin silk films that were cured in water, dried and optically evaluated. A similar process was followed to create lenses, microlens arrays and holograms. Film thicknesses from 10 to 100 µm were characterized for transparency and optical quality.
The Tufts team embedded three very different biological agents in the silk solution: a protein (hemoglobin), an enzyme (horseradish peroxidase) and an organic pH indicator (phenol red). In the hardened silk optical element, all three agents maintained their activity for long periods when simply stored on a shelf. “We have optical devices embedded with enzymes that are still active after almost a year of storage at room temperature. This is amazing given that the same enzyme becomes inactive if forgotten and left unrefrigerated for a few days,” said Omenetto.”