Projekti BeeYeast meeskond

University of Tartu students won grand prize at global synthetic biology competition

Students of Science and Technology and Bioengineering of the University of Tartu Institute of Technology have developed a method to make bees immune to the deformed wing virus that causes one of the most common infections among bees. The project BeeYeast brought the team the grand prize at the iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) competition, the world championship in synthetic biology. 

As pollinators, bees are crucial to biodiversity. Unfortunately, their numbers are declining globally due to insecticides, climate change and diseases. Among the latter, the deformed wing virus, primarily transmitted by mites, is particularly widespread and detrimental, causing the death of millions of bee colonies annually.   

Virus protection from genetically modified yeast cells  

According to the supervisor of the University of Tartu team Ilona Faustova, Associate Professor of Molecular Biology, the students developed a synthetic biology method by which yeast cells produce compounds that provide antiviral protection to the bee. "Our aim is to inhibit the production of viral proteins in bee cells. To do this, we make the genetically engineered yeast produce small interfering RNA molecules that prevent viral genes from expressing. To deliver these RNAs into bee cells, the genetically modified yeast is fed to the bees or injected directly into honeycombs," explained Faustova, who said the method is transferable to solve a number of other problems.  

Oscar for best student project in synthetic biology  

iGEM, the world's most prestigious competition in synthetic biology, was held for the 20th time this year. It attracted 404 teams from 66 countries and regions. The University of Tartu team consists of 11 bachelor's and master's students of the curricula of Science and Technology and Bioengineering. However, according to Faustova, winning the grand prize is a special recognition for everyone developing research and teaching in synthetic biology at the university. It is also a quality mark for Estonian research in this field. 

BeeYeast projekti meeskond tänavuste auhindadega

Besides the grand prize, the team won the best conservation project and the best measurement awards and was nominated for the best wiki, the best presentation and the best education awards. The project also received the gold medal. "In this sense, iGEM can be compared to the Oscars ceremony, where participants are nominated for different awards, but there is only one grand prize," explained Faustova.  

Students from the Institute of Technology have participated in iGEM six times and have won silver medals three times and gold medals three times. In addition, the last year's team was nominated for the best wiki award. "From previous experience, winning the grand prize seemed like an unattainable dream. This time, however, proved that with hard work, good motivation and a strong team spirit, any goal is achievable," said Faustova. Participation in the competition was made possible thanks to the laboratory of Professor of Molecular Systems Biology Mart Loog, which allowed the students to prepare their project and supported their participation.   

See the home page of the BeeYeast project and the video introducing the project. 


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