From insect-sourced protein supplements, to Nobel Prize-winning fruit fly research, to insect-based plastic, it seems insects are the organisms to look out for in the future.

Researchers at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have succeeded in creating a form of biodegradable plastic film that rivals the strength of metal. It is super light and flexible, and decomposes within a span of a few years, which is light-years ahead of current plastic, which can take up to 1000 years to decompose. “Shrilk”, as it is called, is made of chitin, a carbohydrate in insect exoskeletons, and fibroin protein from silk.1

Despite past failed attempts at creating a similar material, the researchers finally achieved their aim by carefully studying and recreating the natural structure of insect cuticles, the flexible yet hard protective outer shells of shrimp and insects.2 In shrilk, the chitin is isolated from shrimp shells, which are a waste product in the seafood industry, and the protein, fibroin, is obtained from silk. The design is a form of biomimicry, where the structure and chemistry of natural materials are imitated to produce synthetic materials with similar properties. Shrilk is relatively cheap and easy to produce, and can become widely accessible using large-scale manufacturing techniques. Research is still underway and it is not commercially available yet, however, the material will be useful in a myriad of ways, including consumer plastics and medicinal uses such as dissolvable sutures and scaffolding for tissue regeneration.3

According to the Institute’s recent press announcement, “Natural insect cuticle, such as that found in the rigid exoskeleton of a housefly or grasshopper, is uniquely suited to the challenge of providing protection without adding weight or bulk. As such, it can deflect external chemical and physical strains without damaging the insect’s internal components, while providing structure for the insect’s muscles and wings. It is so light that it doesn’t inhibit flight and so thin that it allows flexibility. Also remarkable is its ability to vary its properties, from rigid along the insect’s body segments and wings to elastic along its limb joints.”

This is exciting news for environmentalists, science enthusiasts and all people who use plastic everyday. It could mean an end to the guilt associated with buying plastic-packaged products and foods, so the benefits of packaging — cleanliness and preservation — will no longer mean killing the planet. It may also mean a newfound appreciation for some of the most numerous living things on earth — little, jointed, big-eyed (or should I say bug-eyed) six-legged creepy crawlies!

 

Bibliography:

[1] Parks, J. (2014, January 23). Shrilk: Bug-Inspired ‘Plastic’ Made from Shrimp Shells. from https://www.livescience.com/42804-shrilk-bug-inspired-plastic-made-from-shrimp-shells.html

[2] Shrilk composite film. (2016, February 16). from https://asknature.org/idea/shrilk-composite-film/#.WqNluainHrc

[3] New Material Shrilk Might Rival Plastic. (2011, December 16) from https://cleantechnica.com/2011/12/16/new-material-shrilk-might-rival-plastic/