Living Gallery, fall 2017Two silkworms slink about amid silk spun on a brass wire construct at the Living Gallery. (Sacramento State/Ahmed V. Ortiz) More photos

Merrill Roseberry wants you to make connections and get connected, but not in the modern, gadget-centric sense.

Her thoughts are more earthbound.

The primary curator of Sacramento State's Living Gallery, Roseberry wants visitors to the current silkworms exhibit to think about their connection to the things we use – in this case, what we wear.

“This beautiful fabric that is so soft and luxurious comes from this little booger-type of worm,” says Roseberry, punctuating her comment with a self-aware giggle.

The silkworm exhibit, in the Sequoia Hall lobby at least through the end of November, is the latest in a line that has included a rare corpse flower, an ant farm, butterflies, quail, fish, and carnivorous plants.

Gallery content often is tied to course curriculum. The silkworms align with an entomology course (Biology 157). But content also has been spawned by Roseberry’s whim. The quail exhibit, for instance, was the result of her wondering if she could hatch birds - and, yes, she could - in the gallery’s snug space.

Roseberry says this fall’s exhibit also is designed to give existential pause to visitors who interact with it. The critters, essentially, are products of more than 5,000 years of genetic engineering by humans. They are bred to do one thing: produce silk.

So pronounced is this fact that Bombyx mori, the species of moth that lays the eggs that become silkworms, is exclusively a domesticated animal. Because it exists only in captivity and has no predators, it has no need for camouflage, so its color has evolved to a canvas-like pale beige.

And although Bombyx mori has wings, it is flightless. Roseberry says it’s much like any animal we typically think of when we consider domestication: cow, sheep, chicken, goat, pig – even dogs, which have been bred in so many directions from their wolf origins. The silkworm exhibit shows that domestication can extend beyond the things we eat or tame.

“Humans can have a really large impact on directing evolution when we want to domesticate things,” Roseberry says.

And that can happen quickly. As Roseberry notes, 5,000 years is a relative blip on the geological timeline. “We can (be) and are a driver of evolution,” she says.

Roseberry says she hopes some of the facts surrounding the exhibit inspire awe, such as: The worms' silk has tensile strength greater than that of the brass wire constructs contained within the exhibit that serve as perches on which the worms cocoon and spin silk.

She also hopes the exhibit sparks a general appreciation for the mundane machinations of nature.

“I hope people walking by seeing the exhibit might stop and have a moment of wonder at just how incredible the natural world is,” Roseberry says. “Even if only one person has an epiphany moment, then I think the display has done its job.” – Ahmed V. Ortiz