Cornell University Genetically Engineered Machines


Comprehensive Environmental Assessment provides a framework to determine the downstream effects of genetically engineering fungal biomaterials and to address ethical concerns. Using this method, we evaluated the possible effects of genetic engineering on the environmental fate and ecological impact of fungal biomaterials. We subsequently developed strategies designed to minimize detrimental effects [1].

Inspired by Ecovative Design, our goal is to benefit society by improving fungal biomaterial manufacturing. Fungal biomaterials represent a sustainable alternative to Styrofoam and other packaging materials and would be cost-effective after improvements in manufacturing. Thus, our project goal of genetically engineering fungi to express antibiotic resistances and a modular genetic circuit paves the way for increasingly cost-effective fungal biomaterials by preventing contamination during the manufacturing process, which would incur cost by delay. Our construct toolkit also provides a base for further work and exploration in the field of fungal genetic engineering for various other applications.

We have considered the possibility of our genetic constructs, especially the resistance genes, of being transferred to the environment by a phenomenon known as horizontal gene transfer. Such an occurrence could negatively impact the environment by endowing various organisms with new genetic capabilities. Therefore, we plan to utilize the Cre-lox recombination system to excise antibiotic resistance genes (for use after selection steps in the manufacturing process) and a modular kill switch to destroy potentially dangerous fungi upon induction. These mechanisms provide safety and can be adapted to fit the needs of each manufacturing center.

Consultation with Ecovative Design and Cornell professors in various departments (plant pathology and biological engineering) has impressed upon our team the possible impacts of our project, negative and positive.


1. Powers, C. M., Dana, G., Gillespie, P., Gwinn, M. R., Hendren, C. O., Long, T. C., Wang, A., Davis, J. M. (2012). Comprehensive Environmental Assessment: A Meta-Assessment Approach. Environ. Sci. Technol., 46,9202−9208.