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Technology

Japan's silk industry weaves its way into the 21st century

In 1872, the fifth year of the Meiji era (1868-1912), the Japanese government established the Tomioka Silk Mill, a state-owned silk filature facility, in Gunma Prefecture. The mill was then one of the largest and most sophisticated facilities of its kind in the world. Women came from across the country to work at the mill and after they returned home, the yarn-making techniques and know-how they gained fostered the spread of silk-reeling factories in many parts of Japan.      

Gunma Sericultural Technology Center is rearing transgenic silkworms for use in diagnostic agents, cosmetics and textiles.

     This was the historical backdrop for the development of Japan's loom manufacturing industry. Toyota Motor, the world's largest automaker, was a spinoff from a maker of automatic looms. It is no exaggeration to say Japan's industrialization would have been impossible without the Tomioka Silk Mill.

     Gunma, northwest of Tokyo, remains Japan's biggest silk-farming area, accounting for roughly 40% of total cocoon output, although the country's sericulture industry as a whole has declined due to growing imports of low-cost silk from China, Brazil and other countries.

     The industry may be about to get a new lease on life, however. The Japanese government has designated health care and biotechnology as pillars of its economic growth strategy. The Gunma Sericultural Technology Center, the country's sole public experiment center specializing in sericulture, is looking to revive Gunma as the global center of a 21st-century silkworm industry by producing high-value-added cocoons through the use of state-of-the-art genetic modification technologies.

     Since its establishment in 1898, the GSTC has been engaged in research aimed at improving sericultural technology, such as developing silkworm strains unique to Gunma. This year, the GSTC is pushing ahead with efforts to develop genetic modification technologies and to share the benefits of 21st-century sericulture with the world.

Spinning success

The key to success will be to induce silkworms to produce high-performance silk materials and useful proteins for use in diagnostic agents, cosmetics and other products.

Masahiro Kashiwa, director of GSTC

     Mindful of this task, the GSTC was pleased to learn of the world's first genetically engineered silkworms. The agriculture ministry's National Institute of Agrobiological Sciences in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, developed the silkworms. The GSTC is now conducting research with the NIAS and private companies to develop commercially viable products. Examples include fluorescent silk and extra-fine silk yarn with a thickness half that of ordinary silk filaments.

     These materials have already been tested in dresses and kimonos, and are promising candidates for commercial development.     

Wonders ancient and high-tech

Silkworms can also be used to create collagen, a protein produced naturally by the human body that is commonly used in cosmetics. They can also make proteins used in diagnostic agents. Private companies are working to develop vaccines from substances made by silkworms.     

A jacket made from fluorescent silk produced by transgenic silkworms (photo courtesy of the National Institute of Agrogbiological Sciences)

     At present, these super silkworms can only be raised at the GSTC and other institutions equipped to prevent the uncontrolled system. But a number of local silkworm farmers are rearing transgenic silkworms at the GSTC on behalf of private companies.     

     Meanwhile, the storied Tomioka Silk Mill, which combined modern Western technologies with traditional Japanese techniques, may be named as a World Cultural Heritage site at a meeting of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in June.

Masahiro Kashiwa is director of the Gunma Sericultural Technology Center. The history of Japan's silk culture can be seen at an exhibition titled, "Kaiko: Sericulture of the Imperial Household," being held at Maison de la culture du Japon a Paris through April 5.  

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