Engineered Living Materials (ELMs)

We seek to create living materials through a combination of cellular engineering, novel biopolymer biosynthesis, and practical fabrication methods.

Biological systems assimilate energy and molecular building blocks from their surroundings in order to build hierarchically ordered structures through a process of cell-directed molecular assembly. Just as in a seed growing into a tree, the genetic instructions that program these structure-building processes are there from the start, but even after the tree has been created, living cells embedded in the structure continue to play important roles in environmental sensing, maintenance, and repair. We draw inspiration from this approach to structure building to create engineered biological systems that build novel structural materials. In order to do this, we write new genetic programs to repurpose cellular machinery involved in structure-building, use it to create custom biopolymers, and subsequently assemble those biopolymers into higher order structures. Our approach combines autonomous, cell-directed assembly with top-down material fabrication techniques. The result is a material composed of living cells embedded in a matrix of their own making.

Current lab interests include (but are not limited to) designing and testing synthetic biopolymers tailored for specific applications, developing genetic constructs to maximize biopolymer synthesis, and studying the response of ELMs to different stimuli.

Members of the lab were amongst the grand prize winners in the NSF Idea Machine 2026 Challenge for their proposal on ELMs.

A review article from our lab that provides an overview of ELMs: 

 

Nguyen, P. Q., Courchesne, N. M. D., Duraj‐Thatte, A., Praveschotinunt, P., & Joshi, N. S. (2018). Engineered living materials: prospects and challenges for using biological systems to direct the assembly of smart materialsAdvanced Materials30(19), 1704847.

A paper describing living hydrogels, composed of engineered non-pathogenic E. coli and the protein nanofibers they produce, that regenerate themselves inside the mammalian GI tract: 

 

Duraj‐Thatte, A. M., Courchesne, N. M. D., Praveschotinunt, P., Rutledge, J., Lee, Y., Karp, J. M., & Joshi, N. S. (2019). Genetically Programmable Self‐Regenerating Bacterial HydrogelsAdvanced Materials31(40), 1901826.

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