For harnessing silk design to extend the shelf-lives of staple foods like leafy greens and meats, and to improve crop seeding and growth, Benedetto Marelli is the winner of the inaugural BioInnovation Institute & Science Prize for Innovation . The prize seeks to reward scientists who deliver research at the intersection of the life sciences and entrepreneurship.
In the past three years, Marelli's lab has produced two food security-enhancing technologies from his silk-based materials.
"The development of new materials that combine performance with mitigation of environmental impact is an instrumental step to address the challenges that society will face in the next few decades," said Marelli, associate professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "A big step forward has been achieved by our showing that silk can be applied as a simple coating to fabricate a [thin], transparent, and edible membrane that helps protect food from spoilage."
Sustainably feeding the world is an increasing challenge given factors like a rising population and climate change; novel technologies will be crucial to maintaining food security. Even though the development of biomaterials like silk could do much to address related crises in food availability and waste, these materials have been largely overlooked for agro-food applications.
"The scope of biomaterials has remained largely within…human or veterinary medicine," said Marelli. "The research focus of my lab aims to expand the current perception and scope of biomaterials by demonstrating how they can be engineered to interface with food and plants, to ultimately boost food security."
Silk and Spoiled Strawberries
In his early research, Marelli considered the need to apply sustainable biomaterials technology to address dwindling food resources. He had been working at the SilkLab at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, when his lab announced a competition to inspire easy-to-scale, cost-effective, and nontoxic uses of the biomaterial silk in cooking.
The silk-based recipe he provided, he said, did not come out as expected.
While he had intended to concoct a variation on chocolate fondue and strawberries, with silk replacing chocolate, the silk he made appeared transparent on the strawberries. So he abandoned the project.
Marelli left the strawberries in the lab for days. Upon returning a week later, he was intrigued to find that the non-silk treated strawberries had spoiled while the coated, silk-treated ones had not.
"This serendipitous discovery was my personal breakthrough in thinking that biomaterials…could have an impact on agro-food," said Marelli. The discovery gave him the vision to explore other links between nanomanufacturing sustainable materials and creating new agro-food technologies to extend the world's food life cycle.
Marelli said MIT has "been the perfect place for me to carry on my mission of positively impacting the agro-food systems using biomaterials."
He and his team have continued to imagine new ways in which silk-based technology could further contribute to agro-food development. Marelli subsequently co-founded the company Mori, which has developed a silk-based anti-spoilage technology.
Mori's silk-based solution for foods creates an all-natural protective layer that doubles a product's shelf life and reduces plastic use when shipping. This technology is now licensed for use in the United States, Mexico and Costa Rica.
"Mori's technology may provide an important step in reducing the carbon footprint of our food system by reducing both food and packaging waste, ultimately translating to lower greenhouse gas emissions and a lower impact on natural resources," Marelli explained. "Being able to keep food fresher for longer periods of time makes the shipping and handling processes more resilient for farmers, food manufacturers, and grocery stores. My hope is that this can also impact food habits in U.S., promoting consumption of fresh, healthy food and addressing the societal needs to reach zero food deserts and minimize food waste."
Silk-Based Seed Coating
A second innovation that the Marelli lab has developed is a silk-based seed coating technology for the delivery of plant growth promoting rhizobacteria (PGPRs). PGPRs boost plant health and crop yield by increasing availability of macronutrients, decreasing the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and mitigating abiotic stressors.
"The prize-winning research shows a diverse set of methods for transforming silks, such as those from caterpillars, for use as a protective coating for seeds, to extend the shelf life of food and as an edible ingredient. As a widely available biopolymer, there is scope to replace synthetic materials for a range of applications," said Marc Lavine, senior editor at Science.
Marelli is continuing to explore additional uses for his silk-based coatings.
"An interesting technology that we recently developed is centered on a silk-based device that can sense spoilage in food, providing visual information to the consumer about food status," Marelli explained. Although at an early stage, this "smart label" could have a positive impact in increasing food safety while also preventing consumers from throwing out food that may be past a printed expiration date but that is still consumable.
Marelli's novel strategies — which repurpose abundant natural resources to make food production more sustainable — are one example of the kind of bold innovation that BII and Science are looking to recognize.
"I hope that this award will … further inspire other material scientists to apply their technologies to the agro-food systems," said Marelli.
This new prize fills an important gap in scientific award offerings, as it focuses on the applications of groundbreaking discoveries in science to real-world problems.
"BII wants to reward and honor the work of early-career scientists with exceptional potential of translating their research into novel life-changing solutions for the benefit of people and society," said Jens Nielsen, CEO of BioInnovation Institute. "We are excited to see what the future holds for our three entrepreneurial-minded winners of the inaugural BII & Science Prize for Innovation."
Philipp Mews is a 2022 finalist for his essay "Blocking a metabolic enzyme controls the encoding of memories," which focused on targeting memories in the brain to treat trauma and potentially as treatment for alcohol use disorder. Mews received an undergraduate degree from the Free University of Berlin and a BSc and Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. In 2017 he co-founded EpiVario, Inc., and is currently an instructor in the neuroscience department at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. His research explores the interplay between metabolism and epigenetics in the adult brain, with an emphasis on brain circuits involved in the formation and maintenance of memory.
Jacqueline Douglass is a 2022 finalist for her essay "Development of bispecific antibodies to target mutant peptides in cancer," which aimed to target a therapeutic at mutated cancer cells. Douglass received her undergraduate degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an M.D.-Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She is currently an internal medicine resident at Johns Hopkins. Douglass and her team utilized mass spectrometry to determine which mutant peptides were present and then identified antibody fragments to graft into an optimized bispecific antibody format, capable of inducing T cell killing of cancer cells. This project has established a startup company to bring this technology to market.