A major challenge for the silk textile industry and for the process of silk-based biomaterials is to find a degumming method that can completely remove sericin while avoiding obvious hydrolysis damage to the silk fibroin. In this study, papain was used to degum Bombyx mori silk fibers under nearly neutral conditions based on the specificity of papain to sericin. The degumming efficiency was investigated, as well as the mechanical properties and molecular weight of the sericin-free silk fibroin. The results indicated that increasing the papain concentration aided in sericin removal, as the concentration increased to 3.0 g/L, the degummed fibers showed a clean, smooth surface morphology and exhibited a yellow color when stained by picric acid and carmine, confirming the complete removal of sericin from silk fibroin. Furthermore, an analysis of the amino acid composition indicated that the silk fibroin suffered less damage because papain specifically cleaved the binding sites between L-arginine or L-lysine residue and another amino acid residue in sericin, leading to a significantly higher molecular weight and improved tensile strength compared to traditional sodium carbonate degumming. This study provides a novel degumming method which cannot only completely remove sericin, but also maintain the original strong mechanical properties and high molecular weight of silk fibroin.
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