Cultivating wisdom through evolutionary and ecological engineering


Erika DeBenedictis

Erika DeBenedictis

Evolved systems are very different from technologies designed by humans. They're harder to predict and sometimes evolve away from intended purposes, but can also achieve outcomes we could never have rationally designed. The Sculpting Evolution group invents new ways of engineering self-replicating elements, be they single biomolecules or entire wild populations and and their associated ecosystems. By ensuring that candidate ecological interventions are developed transparently and responsively from project inception, we hope to catalyze a shift towards community-guided research that will change the relationship between science, society, and the natural world.

As a group, we aim to:

  • craft well-designed experiments that explore new possibilities while developing new techniques
  • freely share findings and innovative methods with the scientific community and the public
  • learn, teach, mentor, and above all enjoy the process of discovery and creation

What We're Looking For:

We are looking for students interested in biological design, directed evolution, engineering microbial ecosystems, applied ethics, science education and outreach, and the community governance of online education and discussion platforms. 

Prospective students with a strong scientific focus should apply to MIT's Biology, Biological Engineering, Computational and Systems Biology, or Microbiology programs and subsequently rotate in our laboratory. We do not plan to admit traditionally science-focused students directly via the Media Arts & Sciences program.

Example project areas include:

  • using synthetic ecosystems to evolve useful enzymatic tools and explore the workings of molecular evolution,
  • harnessing phages and CRISPR defense systems to control the fitness of genes and bacterial strains within the gut for medical applications,
  • building and studying the evolutionary dynamics of CRISPR gene drive elements capable of altering wild populations,
  • exploring potential applications of gene drive to benefit public health, animal welfare, and conservation, 
  • engineering organisms to improve their well-being, and
  • promoting a new model of scientific research and technology development that is responsive to community guidance.

Exceptional students that do not exactly fit these guidelines will be considered.

Learn about applying through the Program in Media Arts & Sciences.