What would it be like to have 6,500 silkworms spin a house for you?

Mediated Matter Group used a combination of art and mathematics to create a unique structure made by computers and silkworms.

MMG studied silkworms spinning their cocoons and silk on different hexagonal platforms.  You can watch some of the videos of those tests;  time lapse photography of caterpillars spinning silk at high speed is kind of hypnotic.   Inspired by silkworms’ ability to generate a 3-dimensional cocoon out of a single silken thread, the researchers created an algorithm to make a computer think like a silkworm.  They then used that model to instruct a robot to weave a structure.

The language they use to describe this really cool project is…well, pretty dry academic speak, actually.   Here’s an example:

 The primary structure was created of 26 polygonal panels made of silk threads laid down by a CNC (Computer-Numerically Controlled) machine.  Overall density variation was informed by the silkworm itself deployed as a biological “printer” in the creation of a secondary structure…. Specifically, we explored the formation of non-woven fiber structures generated by the silkworms as a computational schema for determining shape and material optimization of fiber-based surface structures..”

Skip that. Just watch. I love the idea of caterpillars as 3D printers.  Make sure you watch all the way to the credits, because it’s way cool.

Random Factoid:

dorsal heart

In this video and the one I linked earlier, you might notice that the caterpillars themselves appear to be sort of strobing.  What you are seeing is their heart beating!

All insects have one long “heart” that runs along their back.  These caterpillars are more transparent than the adult insect shown in this diagram, so we can actually see inside.  When the video is sped up, the rhythmic contractions of the heart turn into a rapid flicker.  You can even see how the contractions pulse up the back of the insect in a wave!

Posted by Gwen Pearson

Entomologist. Educator. Writer. NERD.


  1. I read the proposal for this group project months ago, but seeing those silkworms puts everything in such a different (and beautiful) new light. I like how the scientists took a basic algorithmic form developed from their weaving and presented it as a base for the worms to double.

  2. Cay Craig of cpali.org and I [both of us of “Spider Silk” (www.lesliebrunetta.com)] are proud to have contributed in a very small way to this project. Neri Oxman’s group is doing something different from standard biomimesis–looking also to behaviors of animals to inspire new processes using more responsive, more natural materials.

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