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A team of 12 students from the Department of Biotechnology and Food Engineering at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology has won a gold medal at the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition in Boston for its bee-free honey. The synthetic honey is produced by the bacterium Bacillus subtilis, which “learns” to produce honey following reprogramming in the lab. In addition to alleviating some of the pressure on declining bee populations, the artificial honey enables manufacturers to formulate the end product to the desired specifications, including taste.

Twelve students from six different disciplines—biomedical engineering, medicine, biotechnology and food engineering, industrial management and engineering, chemical engineering, and aerospace engineering—came together for the project, which they named BeeFree. “Our vision is to create a sustainable BeeFree honey using engineered bacteria, which will process a nectar-like solution using secreted enzymes that mimic the honey stomach environment,” the team states on its website.

Honeybees produce honey to make the flower’s nectar more digestible and well-preserved, using various enzymes secreted in their stomachs. To replicate this process, the team established a comprehensive model of the entire “Synthetic Honey Stomach” metabolic pathway. They used B. subtilis as a bacterial model for protein secretion because its high secretion capacity made it a prime candidate to produce the target enzymes and create the artificial honey.

iGEM is a competition established in 2004 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which gives students the opportunity to study and experiment with all aspects of scientific and applied research in synthetic biology. Some 300 teams from universities all over the world took part in the competition. According to iGEM, gold medals are not grand prizes; they are awarded for recognition of excellence. A total of 163 gold medals were handed out during the competition, as well as 77 silver medals, and 57 bronze medals.

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