MSP iGEM combating the OPC pest with their Oak Shield!


Severe itching, rashes, respiratory issues like asthma and eye complaints… All symptoms that affect over 100.000 people in the Netherlands alone as a result of the Oak Processionary Caterpillar (OPC) who returns with vengeance yearly. The iGEM team from Maastricht aims at resolving a local issue by the design of an environmentally friendly, biological pesticide. 


It is no secret that the OPC has become a major threat over the years, harming fauna around them as well as the flora they reside in. Apart from stripping trees bare to their bark, they form a serious health hazard for humans as well as animals. The allergenic protein thaumetopoein on the bristles triggers inflammatory responses of the skin and eyes as well as respiratory problems like asthma attacks. In serious cases, the bristles even have to  be removed surgically from the eyes. 


In the last 3 decades, climate change seems to be the OPC’s best friend. It enabled the invasive species to cross its native borders in Central and Southern Europe, and spread towards all European countries and even parts of the Middle East. It’s quite the journey, isn’t it?! 


Up until now, no insecticide has sealed the deal. Many of the current control methods are very costly, inefficient and non-specific. One of the control measures used at the moment is the biological control; bacterial insecticides (Bt) are sprayed on leaves releasing a toxin, which is a non-specific approach that also causes harm to other caterpillars and butterflies. Another method  is the so-called nest removal; where the caterpillars are vacuumed up and burned. This is very dangerous for exterminators themselves and simultaneously also an expensive technique. 


With a team of 13 students from the University of Maastricht we aim at tackling the problem by genetically engineering a bacterial pesticide that is specific for the OPC and on top of that, environmentally friendly. This biological pesticide (Oak Shield) protects humans, animals and trees. The new tool would target specific and essential OPC gene sequences in the caterpillars to reduce their growing population and avoid harming other species and the ecosystem. For this, we plan to take advantage of the cellular mechanism of RNA interference. It is a form of gene silencing, where the selection and silencing of a critical target gene would lead to a decrease in OPC population


The Oak Shield contains genetically modified E. coli bacteria that produces small interfering RNA complementary to genes only found in the OPC genome. Once sprayed on the trees, the Oak Shield would be ingested by the caterpillar, silencing the target genes so that the respective proteins are no longer produced. In any other species, these siRNA would be rapidly degraded without causing any harm but, for the target insect, it leads to a decrease in population. 

During the times of a global pandemic, friendships and teamwork are built from behind the computer screens, but with a mutual goal in mind we are set to get the best out of this challenging situation. Although corona has bombarded us with many obstacles, we are lucky birds to still have the ability to do lab work. One month ago exactly, the doors of our lab opened up for the MSP iGEM team. In the meantime we kept focus on our YouTube channel called ‘Geneducation’ where we post videos on a variety of topics like genetics and synthetic biology for the big audience. Editing these videos has for sure helped in team bonding which we will surely continue to do:  

“We haven’t really been able to meet in person but because of the videos and seeing the other person on the screen and editing all their laughs out, it feels like we have met already.”
- Juliette Passariello-Jansen.

#pest #oakprocessionarycaterpillar #OPC #igem #msp #synbio #maastrichtuniversity

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