Technion students’ artificial honey nabs gold at international competition
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Technion students’ artificial honey nabs gold at international competition

The synthetic, vegan sweet stuff is produced by the bacterium Bacillus subtilis after reprogramming in the lab

The Technion team at the iGEM competition in Boston held by The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) (Technion Spokesperson Office)
The Technion team at the iGEM competition in Boston held by The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) (Technion Spokesperson Office)

A team of students from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology has won a gold medal in an international competition for synthetic biology held by The Massachusetts Institute of Technology for their development of bee-free honey.

The synthetic honey is produced by the bacterium Bacillus subtilis, which “learns” to produce the honey after manipulation and reprogramming in the lab, the Technion said in a statement on Sunday announcing the win. The bacteria is commonly found in the upper layers of soil and there is some evidence it is also present in the gut of humans and some animals.

“We took the bacteria and manipulated it, so that it imitates the same processes” and creates the same enzimes that occur in bees’ belly as they create honey, said Shira Levy, 25, one of the students on the team, in a phone interview.

That bacterium was chosen because it is known to be safe and also knows how to create and express enzymes, she said. Though genetic manipulation, the students changed the bacteria so that it now expressed the same enzymes responsible for making honey.

The result looks and smells like honey, Levy said, but for safety reasons neither the students nor the judges tasted the end product.

The development, on which a team of students has been working on for the past year, is important in light of a global decline seen in bee populations, and also because it will allow future manufacturers of this artificial honey to determine its properties, including its taste, the statement said.

The product is also considered vegan, as it does not include any live animals in the process, and the bacteria has the status of a plant or a mushroom, Levy explained.

The International Genetically Engineered Machine, or iGEM, competition in Boston was established in 2004 by MIT giving 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. Student groups from the Technion have been participating in the iGEM competition since 2012, and have come away with six medals over the years, including this year’s gold. Incidentally, the gold medal given out in the  competition, is not a first prize but a medal of recognition of the high quality of the project.

The team of students this year came from six faculties at the Technion: Biomedical Engineering, Medicine, Biotechnology and Food Engineering, Industrial Management and Engineering, Chemical Engineering, and Aerospace Engineering.

“The winnings in the competition are definitely exciting, but equally important is the intellectual property created around the project,” said Prof. Roee Amit, head of the Synthetic Biology Laboratory for the Decipherment of Genomic Codes in the Faculty of Biotechnology and Food Engineering, in the statement.

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