Israeli Students Invent ‘Beeless’ Honey

November 11, 2019

3 min read

The existence of bees is vital to humankind – most importantly because they pollinate flowers to produce fruits and vegetables, as well as decorative plants and trees that produce oxygen. They are also necessary for manufacturing delicious honey in their hives. 

In recent years, many parts of the world have been affected by colony collapse disorder  (CCD), in which the majority in a bee colony disappear and leave behind a queen, plenty of food and a few nurse bees to care for the remaining immature bees. In come countries, there has been a decline of more than 50% in bee colonies, causing significant economic losses because many agricultural crops worldwide are pollinated by western honeybees. 

According to the Agriculture and Consumer Protection Department of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the economic value of global crops with honeybee pollination has been estimated at close to $200 billion; In the US, farmers have even rented bees to use them for pollination. 

While several possible causes for CCD have been suggested, no single explanation has gained widespread acceptance among scientists. Among those raised were genetic factors, loss of habitat, infections by mites, bee malnutrition and immunodeficiencies.  

In any case, what will the Land of Israel do without enough bees as the land of milk and honey? A team of students and scientists at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa may have a solution. For the sixth time, a Technion team has won a gold medal at the international iGEM competition in Boston, ranking among the top five in the category of community contribution. Their winning development over the past ear was a technology – not yet commercialized – to create honey with bees!

The synthetic honey is produced by the bacterium Bacillus subtilis, which “learns” to produce the honey following reprogramming in the lab. In the artificial production of honey, the manufacturer can determine the properties of the honey, including its taste.

Honeybees produce honey to make the flower’s nectar more digestible and well-preserved, using various enzymes secreted in their honey stomach. The honey possesses unique properties that make it highly attractive in fields such as medicine, cosmetics and the food industry. 

The team from “BeeFree” decided to make a sustainable honey using engineered bacteria that will process a nectar-like solution using secreted enzymes that mimic the honey stomach environment. The engineered bacteria are be separated from the final product using membrane-based capsules, providing the bacteria’s favorable growth medium inside the capsule, while allowing enzyme secretion to the external “nectar” solution. They have also designed a synthetic circuit to regulate the transcription of the essential enzymes, enabling them to control the final composition of BeeFree Honey and tailor it the desired applications.

iGEM is a prestigious competition established in 2004 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that 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.

This year, with the support of Israel’s Ministry of Science and Technology and the Technion, a delegation of 12 students from six Technion faculties –biomedical engineering; medicine; biotechnology and food engineering; industrial management and engineering; chemical engineering; and aerospace engineering – left for the US. The students were Asaf Licht; Lior Haim; Zeinat Awwad; Nir Litver; Mai Dror; Ofri Warsha; Ilan Brajzblat; Oriyet Tibi; Yehonatan Zur; Dor Ben Meir; Shira Levi; and Lidya Tannenzapf. 

The competition is structured so that groups are required to both develop a scientific-technological idea and present themselves as real business enterprises. In addition to the development of new technology, group members are required to raise research funding; meet with relevant experts from academia and industry; and perform experiments to improve the product. Over the years, dozens of startups have been born through the international competition.

“Winning in the competition is definitely exciting, but equally important is the intellectual property created around the project,” said Prof. Roee Amit. “Just this year, we’ve shortlisted two rare achievements with developments from previous student competition – a scientific article published January 2, 2019; and a patent approved in the US on March 26, 2019.” 

The article, which was published in the ACS Biomaterials Science and Engineering journal, describes the use of engineered bacteria to detect and measure harmful substances in food and water. The patient is for a device for preventing baldness based on body bacteria activity.

One parameter for participation in the competition is social contribution. Within this framework, the Technion group held a unique Hackathon on environmental issues and sustainability. At the Hackathon, 44 outstanding students from 10 th to 12 th grades in Haifa participated, with 

The Green Choice group winning first place, developing a solution to reduce the amount of food waste in the world. This was achieved through an application that allows supermarkets to offer lower prices on products that are about to expire. The Hackathon organization put the Technion team among the top five in the iGEM Community Engagement category.

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