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Cornell iGem Receives Gold Medal for Organofoam

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Cornell iGEM team was recently awarded a gold medal at the 2013 North America Jamboree in Toronto, competing with 50 other universities from throughout the U.S. and Canada. Additionally, the team received the Best Human Practices Advance Award. With their gold medal, Cornell iGEM advances to the World Champion Gamboree, which will be held at MIT on November 1-4. There, team placed in the top 16, one of only five North American universities to do so.

The team is represented by 26 students, including those from diverse engineering fields such as electrical and computer engineering, chemical engineering, biological engineering, mechanical engineering, computer science, and operations research and information engineering. In addition the team includes students in four other colleges (A&S, CALS, HumEc, AAP), including biology, chemistry, human biology, architecture, history, and statistics majors.

Cornell iGem has developed a toolkit of genetic parts for engineering complex fungi. Their project, Organofoam, is inspired by Upstate New York-based Ecovative Design, which uses lignin-degrading fungi and plant matter to produce a cost-effective, biodegradable, and sustainable Styrofoam substitute, which they call Mushroom© Packaging.

Polystyrene, or Styrofoam, can take hundreds of years to degrade in landfills, produces dozens of identified chemical toxins upon combustion, and is tremendously inefficient to recycle, posing difficulties for disposal and polluting the environment. Mushroom© Packaging on the other hand is grown from agricultural byproducts and mushroom mycelium, a natural, self-assembling glue, which digests crop waste to produce cost-competitive and environmentally-responsible packaging materials.

Upon consulting with Ecovative, the Cornell team found that the company’s production efficiency of Mushroom© Packaging suffers due to contamination from pathogenic molds, which inhibit the growth of desired fungus and can compromise entire batches of material.

In seeking to improve Ecovative’s Mushroom© Packaging through synthetic biology, the Cornell iGEM team recognized that the problem could be solved with a genetic circuit that confers resistance to specific mold species. However, both industry and academia largely lack standardized fundamental tools for engineering fungi. Through their project, the team’s goal is to empower various industries to improve the use of fungi to develop sustainable technologies. Cornell iGem’s research can be implemented directly upon its conclusion and could improve both Ecovative’s biodegradable materials and the company’s production process.

"Our team is really interested in expanding the reach of synthetic biology to increasingly complex biological systems, so Ecovative's work sparked our interest," said team lead Swati Sureka, Biological Sciences & Chemistry '15. "When we approached them with our idea for using genetic engineering to improve their product, they responded very positively, and we established a collaboration to reach our common goals of creating environmentally and economically sustainable products."

Because they are developing genetically modified organisms (GMOs), there is concern with its release into the environment and its impact on a growing market. In addressing these and other concerns, the team has worked closely with Ecovative, environmental activists, small business owners, scientific researchers, and others that have an interest or will be affected by their research.

To combat possible horizontal gene transfer and other potential issues with their GMOs, the team has included a number of biosafety measures within their toolkit to prevent the targeted antifungal compounds and antibiotic resistance genes from spreading into the environment, including Cre-Lox recombination and "kill switch" systems.

"In line with synthetic biology principles, we have adopted a ground up approach in the construction of our fungal toolkit through the use of various parts and functions," said Rebecca Chew, Chemical Engineering '15. "Similarly, our team consists of members from varying backgrounds who share a common goal of applying our wide range of knowledge to solve a real world problem."

According to their website, Cornell iGEM’s work is particularly far-reaching as their concepts are designed for functional use in fungi. Extensive genetic work has not yet been done to take advantage of the diverse phylum’s many unique traits, so their comprehensive toolkit opens the door to many future synthetic biology applications. Not only will this toolkit improve Ecovative’s packaging material, but it will allow future researchers to more easily utilize these f­­ungi for possible biomaterials, bioremediation, and pharmaceutical applications.

The Cornell University Genetically Engineered Machines (CUGEM) team is an international award winning, biology­-inspired project team based in Cornell University. The group is completely student-run and is comprised of undergraduate students drawn from various disciplines and levels of expertise across the university. The team’s mission is to design and develop a novel genetically modified platform, using the principles of synthetic biology, to compete at the world’s premier synthetic biology competition, International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM). Their vision is to create synthetic biology tools and processes that will offer breakthrough answers to the many needs of industry and the economy. Visit their website at http://igem.engineering.cornell.edu.

The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Competition is the premier undergraduate Synthetic Biology competition. Student teams are given a kit of biological parts at the beginning of the summer from the Registry of Standard Biological Parts. Working at their own schools over the summer, they use these parts and new parts of their own design to build biological systems and operate them in living cells. Find out more at http://igem.org.

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