iGEM 2019: Combatting plant pathogen Xylella fastidiosa

iGEM 2019: Combatting plant pathogen Xylella fastidiosa

Ever since the WUR was founded, we have been engaged in sustainably feeding the world. But the rapidly increasing world population is making it increasingly harder to achieve this goal, therefore we need to move beyond only improving food production and focus on preventing food losses as well.

Around the world plant diseases cause great losses to agriculture, even before our food leaves the farm. Most plant diseases have different causes, but there is a striking set of plant diseases that share a common cause. This affects the deaths of coffee plants in Brazil, grapevines in North-America, olive trees in Italy and over 100 other plant species around the world. In many cultures these plants are more than just food, they form cultural symbols and their fruits have been central to local heritages and cuisines for human history. What these deaths have in common, is that they are all caused by the same pathogenic bacterium: Xylella fastidiosa.

Xylella fastidiosa has been causing problems in north- and south-America for over a century and even though the bacterium has been identified as the causal agent of many plant diseases over the past four decades, there still is no cure. Recently the pathogen has been detected in Europe, where it is rapidly spreading throughout the Mediterranean, despite strict quarantine measures from the EU. The pathogen shows no signs of slowing down and predictions tell us the pathogen is liable to spread further north, to countries like the Netherlands. Alarmingly, Xylella fastidiosa also known to continuously adapt to infecting new plant species, meaning that it could only be a matter of time before the pathogen also poses a threat to Dutch fruits like apples, pears and cherries. That’s why we want to act now!

This summer, our team will work hard to devise a cure for Xylella fastidiosa using the natural enemies of bacteria: bacteriophages. The use of bacteriophages in therapies for plants is very promising, as they are highly specific and provide an effective alternative to current measures, that include the burning of diseased plants and heavy use of insecticides. We aim to overcome limitations that hold back current bacteriophage therapies by improving the delivery mechanism and by implementing a system that allows our therapy to get help from the immune system of the diseased plant. In this way our therapy works together with nature instead of against it.

The iGEM Competition

With this project, we hope to represent the Wageningen university in the international Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. The iGEM competition challenges teams of students from around the globe to solve real world problems using synthetic biology. The competition builds up to the Giant Jamboree in Boston, that takes place in the beginning of November. At the Giant Jamboree over 350 teams will present their projects in front of 3500 fellow students, supervisors and jury members.

Because iGEM teams engage in real-world problems, it is important to focus on more than science alone. We aim to achieve this by engaging with the general public, in order to raise awareness on the dangers of this plant pathogen and inform people on how they can help limit the spread of this pathogen. We also aim to discuss with experts and stakeholders in order to incorporate their feedback into the direction of our project.

Synthetic Biology

Synthetic biology is where engineering meets life science, meaning it combines the knowledge of biological systems to construct smart biological circuits, allowing us to reach solutions previously unattainable.  We, the Wageningen University & Research 2019 iGEM team, take on the challenge of using synthetic biology to combat Xylella fastidiosa. In this we hope to advance the field of science and promote the role synthetic biology can play a in solving the problems of future generations.

If you have any questions or want to share your opinion, feel free to contact us at iGEMwageningen@gmail.com or by using the contact form.