Membranes were prepared from fibroin, a protein isolated from the domesticated silkworm (Bombyx mori) silk, and evaluated as a potential substratum for corneal limbal epithelial cells. These membranes (i.e., B. mori silk fibroin [BMSF] membranes) were cast from dialyzed solutions of fibroin protein (4% w/v) dispensed into 35-mm-diameter culture dishes and dried at room temperature (23-24 degrees C). The resulting material was transparent, easy to handle, and supported levels of human limbal epithelial (HLE) cell growth comparable to that observed on tissue culture plastic. Remarkably, these results were obtained utilizing a commercial serum-free medium (CnT-20) designed for the ex vivo expansion of corneal epithelial progenitor cells. The potential benefits of serum proteins on this culture system were examined through addition of fetal bovine serum (FBS) either to fibroin stocks prior to membrane casting or by supplementation of the CnT-20 medium. Membranes cast in the presence of FBS displayed increasing opacity and induced little change in HLE growth. Supplementation of CnT-20 medium with FBS deterred cell growth on all substrata, including tissue culture plastic control substrata. The remarkable properties of BMSF membranes demonstrated under serum-free conditions warrant investigation of this material as a substratum in the creation of tissue-engineered constructs for the restoration of diseased or damaged ocular surface.