Organofoam: Can we improve biodegradable fungal styrofoam substitutes?

Cornell UniversityBiologyEngineering
Open Access
DOI: 10.18258/0655
$3,055
Raised
101%
Funded on 10/05/13
Successfully Funded
  • $3,055
    pledged
  • 101%
    funded
  • Funded
    on 10/05/13

About This Project

Petroleum-based materials such as Styrofoam, while convenient, seriously threaten our environment, releasing dozens of toxins and accumulating in landfills. Inspired by Ecovative Design, a company that has created a biodegradable Styrofoam substitute out of mushroom mycelium, we aspire to optimize the production of eco-friendly biomaterials through genetic engineering of complex fungi. We are developing a fundamental toolkit of genetic parts that allows others to use this largely untapped resource, with potential future applications in pharmaceuticals, agriculture, and mycofiltration.

Ask the Scientists

Join The Discussion

What is the context of this research?

Inspired by Ecovative Design, a biomaterials company, our project goal this year is to optimize the manufacturing process of a novel, sustainable biomaterial by genetically modifying Ganoderma lucidum. Since its launch in 2007, Ecovative has been pioneering the development and use of mycelium, the vegetative part of fungus comprised of branching, filamentous structures known as hyphae, as a biodegradable material with the ability to substitute Styrofoam and other plastic foams. To contribute to this area of biology, Cornell iGEM hopes to develop a toolkit of useful genes and regulatory elements for genetically modifying higher-order basidiomycotic fungi. We are working to express pigments and antifungal agents from other organisms in Ganoderma to improve the production of future fungal materials.

Our toolkit will include genes involved in the well-characterized carotenoid biosynthesis pathway. In this pathway, farnesyl pyrophosphate (FPP), a compound naturally produced in essential metabolic pathways, is converted by the carotenoid (crt) genes to produce lycopene and beta-carotene. Lycopene and beta-carotene are two carotenoid pigments that respectively result in red and orange coloration. Our constructs are designed to successfully move the crt genes into fungi in a standardized fashion.

We also plan on including antibiotic resistance genes in our toolkit. Our kit will provide resistance against the antibiotics hygromycin and geneticin and the herbicide bialaphos. These resistance genes are vital to selecting organisms into which we have successfully integrated our genetic constructs. Finally, we hope to introduce specific antifungal genes to mycelial biomaterial to eliminate contamination from other fungal species, a factor that reduces the growth efficiency of mycelium-based materials.

We will submit these genes to a larger registry according to the international Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) BioBrick Standard. A BioBrick is a DNA sequence of defined structure and function designed to share a common interface. This interface allows BioBricks to be combined in novel ways, allowing scientists to engineer entirely new biological systems in a standardized fashion. However, thus far, no tools exist in the Registry for genetic manipulation of basidiomycete fungal species. Cornell iGEM hopes to change that this year.

What is the significance of this project?

Current petroleum based materials place a heavy burden on the environment. Styrofoam and other plastic foams are widely used with applications in several industries, including insulation, food service, and packaging. According to the EPA, Styrofoam takes 500 years to degrade in the environment and generates over 50 hazardous chemical byproducts when combusted, making disposal a difficult and costly task.

The demand for an environmentally-friendly Styrofoam substitute has dramatically increased as the negative consequences of Styrofoam usage have come to light. As of June 2013, over 200 cities across America have passed legislation that prevents local companies from using Styrofoam food packaging. Both New York City and the state of Massachusetts have proposed eliminating the substance from their respective areas completely. Under new restrictions from the government, companies are now exploring new materials to serve their needs, such as paper or starch. However, environmental activists agree that all current substitutes on the market have “similar or greater environmental impact” (Business Area Manager for Waste Prevention, Seattle Public Utilities). Companies, governments, and environmental agencies are all in search of a sustainable polystyrene substitute.

Our project this year investigates the underexplored area of fungal genetic engineering in an attempt to optimize the manufacturing process of a novel biomaterial. Fungal materials, such as those developed by Ecovative, serve as an attractive alternative to traditional lightweight, petroleum-based packaging materials such as Styrofoam for several reasons. Because it is formed from entirely organic substrates, the material easily decomposes in its natural environment. Unlike polystyrene products, which can sit in landfills for up to 500 years, this biodegradable material offers potential can be used as a natural fertilizer after its intended use, be it your morning cup of coffee or the insulation in your house. Our genetic platform has the potential to improve mycelium-based biomaterial manufacturing to the degree where such a product can be produced with the same efficiency and reliability as Styrofoam and other plastic foams, incentivizing future use for sustainable living. For instance, antifungal genes will greatly reduce the instances of mold contamination in growing mycelium, thereby increasing production efficiency.

Our genetic tools are fundamental to furthering the field of fungal genetic engineering. Higher-order fungi offer the potential to survive harsh environmental conditions, produce innumerable useful compounds, and interact with their biotic environment in unique, interesting ways. The standardization of tools and protocols for genetic modification of fungi could prove groundbreaking for the pharmaceuticals industry, large-scale agriculture, environmental mycofiltration, and of course, biomaterials.

The success of this project could influence how sustainable products are developed in the future. With the resources of Cornell University and its rich history and expertise in sustainability practices, our team is uniquely placed to help move the field of biomaterials forward. As a group of 30 motivated and diverse thinkers, our team is committed to using synthetic biology as a platform for a more sustainable future.

What are the goals of the project?

Cornell iGEM would like your help in furthering our project goals this year. Your support would help us maintain a well-equipped and productive laboratory for developing our sustainable products. The funds will allow us to create our novel genetic constructs, using techniques such as PCR and site-directed mutagenesis, and grow fungal strains in the lab. Our wet lab research requires materials such as primers, enzymes, and kits; just these three materials together can cost over three thousand dollars throughout the course of a single project. Please see the budget section for more specific items we need to continue our research. While we do receive support from Cornell, much of this must be used for travel and competition fees, leaving a void for research-related costs. With your help, we can make strides to secure a more sustainable future.

Budget

Please wait...

Our budget will be used to purchase necessary lab chemicals and supplies for constructing our genetic toolkit and for growing our fungal strains.

UPDATE: Our regional competition is fast approaching in October. While we've met our goal, we are going through supplies quicker than ever! In particular, we are in constant need of enzymes and primers, which will cost us $2000 more in the coming weeks. Please help us jump-start our project and gather novel, interesting data to share with the world!

Meet the Team

Cornell iGEM
Cornell iGEM

Affiliates

Cornell University
View Profile

Team Bio

The Cornell University Genetically Engineered Machines (Cornell iGEM) team is an award-winning undergraduate synthetic biology team. Every year, we design and develop a novel genetically engineered platform to help with the many needs of industry, the environment, and the economy. Comprised entirely of undergraduates and drawn from various majors across five colleges -- Engineering, Arts & Sciences, Agriculture & Life Sciences, Human Ecology, and Architecture -- our team strives to create comprehensive solutions to real-world problems. In 2012, we developed a field-deployable biosensor, called SAFE BET, to detect the presence of arsenic in groundwater affected by seepage from oil and gas extraction. We were awarded Best Solution to an Oil Sands Challenge from the Canadian Oil Sands Leadership Initiative (OSLI) and placed within the Top 16 at the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. In 2011, the team created a scalable, cell-free method to produce complex biomolecules, BioFactory, which won the Best Manufacturing Award at the international competition. We now seek to create a fungal genetic toolkit to provide a foundation for future fungal genetic engineering and develop novel ways to improve the production process of fungal biomaterials.

Cornell iGEM

The Cornell University Genetically Engineered Machines (Cornell iGEM) team is an award-winning undergraduate synthetic biology team. Every year, we design and develop a novel genetically engineered platform to help with the many needs of industry, the environment, and the economy. Comprised entirely of undergraduates and drawn from various majors across five colleges -- Engineering, Arts & Sciences, Agriculture & Life Sciences, Human Ecology, and Architecture -- our team strives to create comprehensive solutions to real-world problems. In 2012, we developed a field-deployable biosensor, called SAFE BET, to detect the presence of arsenic in groundwater affected by seepage from oil and gas extraction. We were awarded Best Solution to an Oil Sands Challenge from the Canadian Oil Sands Leadership Initiative (OSLI) and placed within the Top 16 at the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. In 2011, the team created a scalable, cell-free method to produce complex biomolecules, BioFactory, which won the Best Manufacturing Award at the international competition. We now seek to create a fungal genetic toolkit to provide a foundation for future fungal genetic engineering and develop novel ways to improve the production process of fungal biomaterials.

Additional Information

Find us on:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/cornelligem

Twitter: https://twitter.com/CUGEM

Email: cornelligem@gmail.com

Website: http://igem.engineering.cornell.edu/


Project Backers

  • 20Backers
  • 101%Funded
  • $3,055Total Donations
  • $152.75Average Donation
Please wait...