iGEM TU Delft 2020 is developing a sustainable biopesticide to tackle food security challenges
The iGEM competition is an international competition for students interested in the field of synthetic biology. This year, the team at the Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) decided to tackle the problem of massive locust swarms that threaten food security in many regions of the world. They are doing this by developing a more effective biopesticide with the help of synthetic biology.
Can you tell us a little about your project? How did you become interested in this topic?
Massive locust swarms threaten food security in the Horn of Africa, Arabian Peninsula and South Asia, devastating thousands of hectares of croplands and pasture. Usually, locusts are inconspicuous grasshoppers that live solitary lives in the vast desert. However, under the right conditions, they change phase and start swarming! Current locust control often relies on unspecific and dangerous chemical pesticides that harm other insects, or biopesticides that are too slow.
We, the TU Delft iGEM team, want to make an impact and accept the challenge of developing Phocus, a biopesticide for locusts that is targeted, fast-acting, and safe. We are designing a bacteriophage to encode for harmful molecules that are specific against locusts. The phages are applied on vegetation ingested by locusts. Once in the locust gut, phages encounter their host bacteria into which they inject their DNA. The phage now uses the bacterium as its factory to replicate itself and produce toxic molecules. The bacterium eventually bursts open, thereby releasing these new phages and toxic molecules, killing the locust.
With our project, we want to achieve food security and economic stability across the globe!
TUDelft: PHOCUS (2020) - Project Promotion Video [English]
Abstract: Locust plagues currently threaten food security in the Horn of Africa, Arabian peninsula and South Asia…
Why is your research important? What are the possible real-world applications?
We believe our project is quite important because locust swarms can grow to the size of Paris and eat the equivalent of half of France! The impact of these insects is tremendous, and current control methods are not effective enough and can be dangerous to other species.
What is the coolest thing about your project?
Our project is not only based on carrying out complex laboratory experiments and developing cutting-edge models, but also about raising awareness on the project we are tackling. To this end, we created a series of cooking shows where we actually cooked with locusts. This must have been the highlight of our project!
What kinds of challenges are you facing?
Like many other iGEM teams around the world, the restrictions associated with Covid-19 have had a big impact on how we work. Working with limited access to our lab has required extensive planning and preparation. Nonetheless, we are confident that we will be able to present interesting results!
How can scientists harness synthetic biology to meet the 2030 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?
In essence, synthetic biology can be used for several applications. Of course, it all depends on how these applications are implemented and for which purpose.
iGEM teams throughout the world have set out to better the environment, create sustainable diagnostic methods, and provide food security across the globe. In our case, PHOCUS is designed to be safe to the environment and is a more sustainable option than current (chemical) pesticides against locusts. This supports SDGs 12 and 15. Controlling locust plagues, and thus keeping locusts from destroying a nation’s food supply and causing famine, contributes to increased food security and reducing hunger among the population (goal 2). Crops comprise farmers’ livelihoods, so preventing crop loss directly contributes to more wealth among farmers and their families (goal 1).
Learn more about how to join the iGEM program on JOGL, check out the video below: