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Portugal wins silver in debut at Synthetic Biology competition

iGEM brings together thousands of collegiate and secondary students every year from all over the world. Team from ITQB NOVA aims to fight Pine Wilt Disease

Team NOVA_LxPortugal just received a silver medal at iGEM 2020, International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition. It was Portugal’s first ever participation in this major synthetic biology contest. iGEM is the biggest SynBio community worldwide and one of the main international science competitions for students. NOVA_LxPortugal was the only Portuguese representative, among a total of 257 teams from all over the world.

The medal-winning project, called PineNematoFight, aims to control and prevent Pine Wilt Disease (PWD) in maritime pines (Pinus pinaster). This infection is caused by the pine netamode Bursaphelenchus xylophilus. The main signs are yellow and wilted needles, dry and brittle branches, and a drop in resin production. The solution created by team NOVA introduces a biocontrol organism – a genetically engineered Pseudomonas putida – capable of producing a nematicidal compound called spectinabilin (which kills the nematode, a parasitic worm). The spectinabilin is produced when there is an increase of the monoterpene alpha-pinene, as part of the tree’s stress response to the infection. Monoterpenes are natural compounds present in plants and the main component of resin.

It is estimated that 10.97 million maritime pines are currently affected by PWD in Portugal. This innovative approach using SynBio tools may contribute to more sustainable forests and related industries and avoid deforestation. The safety and efficiency of the mechanism rely on the natural presence of the bacteria P. putida both in the nematode and the pine tree. The genetically engineered bacterial population is applied to the trees but the system is only activated in the presence of the infection.

NOVA_LxPortugal is composed by students from Universidade NOVA de Lisboa and supervised by Isabel Rocha, Pro-rector and PI, and Sofia Ferreira, post-doc researcher, from ITQB NOVA’s Systems and Synthetic Biology Lab. The majority of team members are women, with seven female and two male students, two women supervisors, one male instructor, and four female instructors.

“Participating in iGEM was a challenging experience: not only did it allow us to consolidate the knowledge acquired during our academic path, but also to develop new skills”, says Beatriz Domingues, student member of the team. We were very proud of the results, considering it was the first time Portugal was represented in this competition. I hope future teams contribute to this big family that is iGEM and bring home more medals”.

“I think what they achieved is extraordinary!", emphasizes Isabel Rocha. “The NOVA team had an excellent performance, developing an original project, with a potential major impact on society. They succeeded in moving the project forward and in involving several stakeholders, even though we only managed to be all together in the same room once due to COVID-19 restrictions”, underlines the supervising researcher.

Pinus pinaster is one of the species of pine most susceptible to PWD. It represents around 23% of Portuguese forest, with a total of 605.000 hectares (along with the cork oak, Quercus suber, it is the most prevalent tree), according to estimates from Instituto da Conservação da Natureza e das Florestas (ICNF) regarding 2019. Maritime pines are used by 88% of Portuguese forest industry companies and are responsible for 81% of the jobs they provide. It is also responsible for 36% of this industry’s exports, valued at € 1,876 million. The Pinus pinaster forest is the biggest carbon reservoir of our national forest and the tree species which stores more carbon per hectare.

PWD was chosen by the team because student leader João Costa noticed there were a lot of sick pines in his region. João lives in Setúbal, where the first outbreak of the disease in Portugal was identified, in 1999. Since Pine Wilt Disease is spread all over the world, project PineNematoFight could easily be scalable and exportable.

iGEM results were announced at the last day of the final stage of the competition, held between November 14th and 22nd: the Giant Jamboree, which gathered 4500 participants from all over the world. In 2020, the event was held online for the first time because of the COVID-19 pandemics.

The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) is a worldwide synthetic biology competition in which hundreds of high school and university teams compete with original projects that they developed. iGEM started in January 2003 as an independent study course at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and it has grown to 257 teams in 2020, reaching more than 45 countries. The iGEM Competition inspires thousands of students each year to work in teams to address unique challenges in their local communities.

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