MUSTS colloquium: Lisa Onaga (MPIWG) – ‘Phase change: A biomaterial history through silk’

Lisa Onaga

Wednesday June 28th, 15:30-17:00

This event will take place on-campus

If you would like to attend as non-MUSTS member, please register by sending an email to: j{dot}bruyninckx{at}maastrichtuniversity{dot}nl


Phase change:

A Biomaterial History Through Silk


Lisa Onaga

(Max Planck Institute for the History of Science)



The natural fiber of silk, unraveled from the cocoons spun by the caterpillars of silk moths, is best known as a textile material, but it is also a valuable key for unlocking a history of biomaterials. The making of silk threads in Japan has entailed a particularly dynamic history of biology due to scientific breeding of silk moths that improved specific material properties of silk filaments. Scientific activities centered around silk’s significance as a textile underwent a change during the 1990s as researchers increasingly tested new ways of rendering these proteinaceous filaments into astonishingly different physical forms unlike materials used typically for weaving. This shift in how people envisioned and explored new micro-scale material uses for silk dovetailed with efforts to diversify applications for silk due to economic reasons as it fell from among Japan’s roster of top export commodities. It also occurred amidst wider scientific efforts to institutionalize the field of biomaterials internationally. The formation of new silk materials facilitated a set of conditions that invited more expansive perspectives that regarded silkworm bodies not only as sources of silk but also tailor-made proteins, used, for example, to develop veterinary medicines. Tracing the inseverable connection between silk and the lively silkworm clarifies how the notion of “biomaterial” emerged in Japan’s recent past and why a history of biomaterials must be told at the interface of biological and technological things.


Lisa Onaga is a Senior Research Scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, Germany.  She previously taught at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and at the UCLA Institute for Society and Genetics. She leads the “Proteins and Fibers: Scaffolding History with Molecular Signatures” working group at the MPIWG, which examines the history of animal materials and their multidisciplinary scientific analysis. Lisa’s research in the history of science and technology focuses on the ownership and authorship of knowledge at the material interface of animal and human life in agricultural, laboratory, health, and industrial settings. She has published extensively on the history of the science of the silkworm in Japan. Most recently, she co-edited with Laurence Douny “Making Animal Materials in Time,” a special issue of the Historical Studies of the Natural Sciences (vol. 53, no. 3, 2023).