There is a deadly disease spreading through the olive groves of Southern Italy and it is slowly expanding its grip over Europe. Hundreds of acres of century-old olive trees have already fallen prey to the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa. Xylella is new to the European continent, but it was already notorious in North and South America. Here it was known to infect hundreds of different plant species, ranging from the iconic sycamore tree to garden plants like oleander. It has been plaguing Californian vineyards for over 100 years and it has brought the Brazilian citrus industry to a grinding halt. An effective cure has not yet been found.
When we decided to enter the iGEM competition, we still didn’t know what issue we would be tackling. But when Alex presented the Xylella fastidiosa and showed us the extent of its damage, it took little debate for the eleven of us to decide that this would be our disease to tackle.
We are a team of 11 students, from several nationalities, Dutch, German and Spanish, studying Biotechnology, Molecular Life Sciences, Bioinformatics and Plant Biotechnology, at the Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Together, we created the group Xylencer to enter the iGEM contest. iGEM is an international competition in synthetic biology. Every year, more than 300 teams of students from all over the world, dedicate their summer holidays to this competition. The goal is to design, build and test a system made from interchangeable biological parts to solve a pressing world problem.
Our team, Xylencer, has taken up the challenge of addressing the Xylella bacterium, in the hope to raise awareness and find a cure. We expect to lay a foundation for a new and effective method to combat this bacterium and prevent its spread. Despite its long history, there is still no effective method to cure this disease. Currently, farmers try to control the bacterium by spraying large amounts of pesticides, burning diseased plants and preventatively removing susceptible plants near areas of infection. Despite all these measures the disease is still spreading through Europe also, infecting other plants than olive trees.
In collaboration with Wageningen University, we are exploring the possibility of using the natural enemies of bacteria, bacteriophages, to cure this disease. With this project, we lay the foundation for the use of bacteriophage therapy in combating Xylella fastidiosa. By providing an effective alternative, we hope to reduce the use of pesticides. Current applications of this type of therapy to other plant diseases suffer from low efficiency and have a laborious application process. With our project, we aim to improve the application by:
- designing a protective delivery organism;
- improve efficiency by allowing the therapy to coordinate with the plant’s immune system;
- reach more infected plants by mimicking the way Xylella fastidiosa spreads itself.
We hope that with our project we can do research that will make bacteriophage therapy more easily applicable in plants, by eliminating some of its drawbacks. We also hope that we can inspire researchers to focus their efforts on curing Xylella fastidiosa, potentially using some of our ideas. Lastly, we want to show the enormous potential synthetic biology can have.
With the help of experts in the field of the X. fastidiosa and bacteriophage therapy, we have been able to make advances in our project. We are currently making the genetic constructs. We have succeeded in making a phage using a cell free system. This can be used to introduce specific genes in these bacteriophages. We also have made a model to follow the spread of X. fastidiosa and the insects carrying the pathogen over an area, to better understand the spread of the pathogen.
In order to be able to continue however, we still need to raise funds. That is why we have organized online fundraising that can help us to finance the research materials, the competition fee and the travel of the whole team to Boston, to attend the competition. Innate Motion is one of our sponsors and we are very happy to have them involved in the project.
More details of the fundraising can be found here.
It is essential that this bacterium is treated and eliminated before it destroys the lives of thousands of Italian families that depend on the production of olive oil as well as many other trees that might become infected with the X. fastidiosa.
The iGEM Foundation is an independent, non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of synthetic biology, education and competition, and the development of an open community and collaboration. This is done by fostering an open, cooperative community and friendly competition.
iGEM’s main program is the iGEM Competition. The iGEM competition gives students the opportunity to push the boundaries of synthetic biology by tackling everyday issues facing the world. Made up of primarily university students, multidisciplinary teams work together to design, build, test, and measure a system of their own design using interchangeable biological parts and standard molecular biology techniques. Every year nearly 6,000 people dedicate their summer to iGEM and then come together in the fall to present their work and compete at the annual Jamboree.
We are currently carrying out our research at the laboratories of Microbiology and Systems and Synthetic biology. We still need to raise funds however to purchase lab equipment that is specific to our research, like specific enzymes and purification kits. All of the funds raised will be used to pay for our research, the competition entrance fee and the travel of the 11 team members to Boston, to attend the annual gathering of the iGEM competition and announcement of the prize winner.
Alba Balletbo Canals, 22, Master biotechonology
Alex Niederau, 25, Master Plantbiotechnology
Ben Kuipers, 22, Master Biotechnology
Cleo Bagchus, 23, Master Biotechnology/Master Molecular life science
Dennie te Molder, 22, Master Biotechonology/Master Bioinformatics
Hetty Huijs, 24, Master Biotechnology
Marijn Ceelen, 22, Master Biotechnology
Niels Appelman, 20, Bachelor Molecular Life Science
Robert Hooftman, 22, Master Biotechnology
Santiago Castanedo, 22, Master Molecular Life Science
Sebastiaan Kuiper, 25, Master Biotechnology