Xylencer: fighting the plant disease Xylella fastidiosa
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. An effective cure has not yet been found. Our iGEM team, Xylencer, has taken up the challenge of addressing this. We expect to lay a foundation for a new and effective method to combat this bacterium and prevent it’s spread. You can support this project by contributing to the costs of this research.
It all started in the summer of 2013, in the Apulia region of Italy. Olive farmers and their families noticed that some of their olive trees started to dry out. They couldn’t understand why, it wasn’t a particularly dry year, especially considering that most olive trees were already in the family for countless generations and had seen much worse. By the next summer, whole olive groves had died out. This forced olive farmers to go out of business, rendering them unable to care for their families. The devastation attracted the attention of the local scientists, who found out that the olives were suffering from an infectious plant disease. Deep under their thick bark was a bacterium called Xylella fastidiosa. This bacterium was slowly depriving the olive trees of water, killing them from the inside out. Xylella might have been 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.
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 olives. Our project, Xylencer, in collaboration with the Wageningen University, is 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 combatting 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.
The team behind Xylencer consists out of 11 Dutch and international students from the Wageningen University, who all share an interest in applying synthetic biology to present-day problems. Our project is part of the yearly iGEM competition, a competition where over 350 student teams from all over the world compete and collaborate to produce the most interesting and compelling research project that applies synthetic biology to current day problems. This summer we work towards our final goal: the ‘Giant Jamboree’ in Boston (Massachusetts, USA). In this finale, iGEM teams come together to present their projects, to interact with and inspire each other and to celebrate their achievements.
To carry out our research, the laboratories of Microbiology and Systems and Synthetic biology have provided us with lab space. However, we still need money to pay for the materials required for our experiments, like enzymes and purification kits. By contributing to our project, you help us pay for these materials and for the fees involved in partaking in this competition. But even more importantly: you show that you believe in a future where olives, grapes and other plants are still part of cultures and cuisines word wide.
You can help us make this project into a success and with that, get us one step closer to silencing Xylella fastidiosa.
Visist our iGEM wiki for more information about the project: https://2019.igem.org/Team:Wageningen_UR.
*You will receive rewards from the level to which your donation belongs, as well as the rewards from the levels below.
**Rewards will be shipped to contributors in the Netherlands, we will contact foreign contributors about shipping costs.
***Rewards will be shipped after the end of the projects, so do not worry if your rewards take a long time to arrive!
Full support of the WUR!17/09/2019 | 19:02
Today we presented our project and results to everyone who helped us up until now and they were very enthusiastic. There is a standing tradition for iGEM teams from Wageningen to present their progress in September where their supervisors will judge whether they are ready to go to Boston. Therefore, we invited the chair groups Microbiology and Systems and Synthetic Biology, previous iGEM team members, professors and advisors of all the chair groups that helped us and several other advisors. T...
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This years’ team consists of eight men and three women. Nine of us are doing experiments in the lab, whereas Hetty and Dennie work on their computers to model our project and to apply bioinformatics to better understand Xylella. Our team mainly consists of Dutchies, but we added some German precision with Alex and Spanish temperament with Santi and Alba. Almost all of us are master students. We have a very interdisciplinary team, with people studying Biotechnology, Molecular Life Sciences, Bioinformatics and Plant Biotechnology.
This February we first met to discuss what iGEM entails and what we would be getting ourselves into. After some months of brainstorming and researching several projects, we decided on working on a cure for Xylella fastidiosa. Luckily, we do not have to do this alone, we have a great team of supervisors from the laboratories of Microbiology and Systems and Synthetic biology behind us.
Over the last months, we’ve been working hard, inside and outside of the lab, to turn our project into a success. A great number of papers and other scientific literature has been read, genetic constructs were designed and built, complex protein purifications were undertaken, and our first phages have been grown. Besides the scientific work we have also been busy investigating the impact our project has on the world, by talking to stakeholders, legislators and other scientists. We have also been busy presenting our project at congresses and to other teams, in order to reach a better solution and help other teams do the same.
In November, the Giant Jamboree will take in Boston, where all teams will get together to present their ideas. This means that we are up against over 350 other teams. Wageningen has done very well over the years, taking second place twice. We hope that this year we will be able to beat that!
Thank you for your interest!
Cleo, Alex, Robert, Marijn, Sebastiaan, Alba, Santi, Niels, Ben, Hetty & Dennie
What is iGEM?
iGEM is an abbreviation for the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition. It is an international competition in which students from all around the world work on diverse projects of their choice. These projects are all attempting to solve a current world problem, using synthetic biology. For more information, visit the iGEM website: https://igem.org/Main_Page.
What is synthetic biology?
Synthetic biology is about using molecular properties from different host organisms and using these in an organism of choice. These properties are encoded in the DNA, genes are an example of these properties. You can incorporate these properties in an organism of choice by acquiring the DNA encoding for this particular skill. This makes synthetic biology a very versatile field with a lot of different applications. Examples include the production of medicine, production of biofuels and the breaking down of plastic waste.
What are bacteriophages?
Bacteriophages (or phages) are the natural enemies of bacteria. Phages are small viruses that can only infect bacteria. Phages are all around us and currently the potential to use phages for the treatment of bacterial infections in humans is being explored. Besides this, a big advantage of phages is that they cannot infect human cells.
Is it possible for these bacteriophages to harm beneficial bacteria?
Bacteriophages are highly specific, and this makes them very suitable for very specific treatments. This gives them a big advantage over, for example, antibiotics that target a broad spectrum of bacteria which also kills the beneficial bacteria.
Are there any negative consequences for the environment?
Since Xylella fastidiosa is a pathogen without any known positive effect on the environment, a bacteriophage therapy can be in very high demand. This is mostly because it is a very specific solution to this problem. But, of course, the effects of this therapy need to be studied.
What type of plants does the bacteria infect and what are the odds that it will infect new plant species?
The bacteria have a host range of over 300 different plant species. Among these species are some economically important crops such as olives, grapes, citrus and coffee. The bacteria live in the sap vessels of the plants, especially in the nutrient-poor environment of these sap vessels. It, therefore, cannot be ruled out that more plant species can get infected in the near future.
What are the consequences for the farmers at the moment when Xylella fastidiosa is detected?
When Xylella fastidiosa is detected on the farm, all trees and/or plants must be cleared in a radius of 100 meters around the spot of diagnosis. Next to this, there is no import/export allowed of plant material in a radius of 5 kilometers from this same spot. This countermeasure must be sustained for a period of 5 years.
How big is the threat of a Xylella fastidiosa infection in the Netherlands?
Xylella fastidiosa has not been detected in the Netherlands at this moment. However, this can alter over time. New infections have been found in Spain and Israel after initial infections occurred in Italy. Earlier this year, the NVWA warned people going on holiday to the Mediterranean counties such as Italy, France, Spain and Portugal to not bring back any plant material due to possible Xylella infections. Besides, the most important carrier of Xylella fastidiosa in Italy is from origin an already present insect in the Netherlands. Finally, due to climate change, the spreading of the disease might occur at a higher rate since the bacteria is better able to survive a warmer climate.
When could this technique be used?
The use of genetically engineered bacteriophages in open field conditions is currently not allowed. The development of such treatments is quite challenging and its effectivity, as well as its effect on the environment, needs to be thoroughly checked before using them in the real world. We, therefore, shall not release a product after the end of our project.
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