Student team win silver in iGEM competition

A team of 13 UM students has won a silver medal in the prestigious iGEM 2020 competition in synthetic biology. The team, led by Dr Erik Steen Redeker, consists of 11 students from the Maastricht Science Programme, one from Biomedical Sciences and one from Systems Biology. It is the second time that UM participated in iGEM.

In the iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) competition, student teams from all over the world search for practical solutions to problems in society with the help of synthetic biology. This year, 249 teams from 36 different countries took part in the competition, which originated from MIT in Boston.

For this edition the UM iGEM team focused on combating the oak processionary caterpillar. Due to global warming, this caterpillar is spreading more and more across northern Europe. The caterpillar is covered with stinging hairs, up to hundreds of thousands of hairs per caterpillar, which can cause not only itching, but also serious respiratory problems. In addition, the caterpillars can eat entire oak trees bare to the bark. The pesticides used so far are either very labor-intensive, expensive or not specific enough, which also kills other insects.

Oak processionary caterpillar

The poisonous bristles of oak processionary caterpillar cause a lot of discomfort to both humans and animals; severe itching is the most well-known consequence. The oak processionary is mainly spotted in oaks along streets in cities, towns and villages. The oak processionary is also observed in forest areas, but here there seems to be a biological balance with its natural enemies.

Photo by: Kleuske

For about 9 months, the UM iGEM team has been working on a solution to specifically combat the oak processionary caterpillar. The idea, called "OakShield" uses so-called "silencing RNA", or siRNA, with which essential genes in the caterpillar can be turned off. This siRNA is produced in E. coli that can be sprayed on the leaves. When the caterpillars eat the leaves, they ingest the siRNA and cannot survive. The siRNA has no influence on genes of other organisms, so that they are not affected.

This idea already won an international prize from Revive & Restore, an organization that promotes the use of biotechnology for nature conservation and biodiversity.

Meet the iGEM2020 team

Due to Covid-19 it was not possible to work optimally in the laboratory, but despite that the team has achieved a number of important things! Not only were the genetic constructs designed and made, but they also developed models, started a peer-reviewed iGEM journal and created a YouTube channel "Geneducation" with various educational videos.

In addition, they have had various contacts and collaborations with teams from all over the globe. The students presented their project through presentations and a poster and defended it before a jury at the online conference in November. All this has led to the winning of a silver medal!

If you have any questions about this project, iGEM in general or are you interested in becoming part of an iGEM team, please send an email to: