As part of his research, Parlin studied how the caterpillars make their protective silk cocoons. When they reach a point in their life cycle, the caterpillars become manic workaholics. For 72 straight hours they spin and spin their silk to create a luxurious, breathable fortress where they can pupate safely into a fuzzy white moth.
Researchers created cardboard arenas with a wooden dowel in the center upon which the caterpillars can spin their silk cocoons. The caterpillars work methodically and nonstop, initially spinning silk from the top of the dowel at an angle to the cardboard like a tent. Once the tent is finished, they work in earnest on building their grape-sized cocoon in a corner of it.
“If the cocoon gets damaged, they just build a second layer around it,” Parlin said.
The moisture-trapping cocoon provides an ideal microclimate to keep the caterpillars happy despite any sudden changes in the weather.
“The silk cocoons prevent moisture from getting in and keeps the animal from desiccation or drying out,” Guerra said.
Now Guerra is investigating how long the virus survives on silk and other materials.
As shortages of personal protective equipment continue to plague health care providers, Guerra said homemade masks will continue to play an important role in keeping people safe from COVID-19.
“Silk has been with us for a while — since the days of the Silk Road,” Guerra said. “It’s not a new fabric, yet now we’re finding all these new uses for it.”