Research to save the most valuable silk moth in the world

Research that could help to save one of the rarest and most valuable silks in the world is being spearheaded by a team that is developing a technique known as phage therapeutics to target harmful bacterial infections in Muga silkworms in order to protect them from disease.

Muga silk yarn is golden in colour and is produced only in Assam, India, by Muga caterpillars to form their cocoons. As one of the rarest and most valuable silks in the world, it remains an integral part of the tradition and culture there.

However, crops of Muga silkworms have been in decline over the last few years due to the growing presence of bacterial disease called Flacherie caused by the silkworm larvae eating infected leaves.

In an attempt to save the Assam silk industry, Dr Mahananda Chutia (pictured), a Visiting Post-Doctoral Fellow from Assam, has been working with Professor Martha Clokie in the Department of Infection, Immunity and Inflammation to identify bacteriophages to treat the disease and to establish how, and when it is best to deploy them to the caterpillars.

The team at Leicester has been working with common white waxworms available in the UK, which are the caterpillar larvae of wax moths, because the Muga worm is only able to survive in the wild conditions found in Assam.

Dr Chutia is planning to apply the knowledge he has learned at Leicester when he returns to Assam to identify appropriate phages for the main causative agents of disease. If it is successful, this approach is expected to be used by the thousands of Muga growers where it could dramatically reduce the amount of caterpillars that are lost during production.

Professor Martha Clokie has been investigating an alternative approach to antibiotics, which utilises naturally occurring viruses called bacteriophages, meaning ‘eaters of bacteria’, for nearly a decade at Leicester.

Watch a video discussing the study and phage therapeutics technique:

BBC Online feature on the research:

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