Students get rid of potato parasite

Potato cyst nematodes cause a lot of damage for farmers. Photo: Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, CC BY 3.0

Students get rid of potato parasite

Kim van Maldegem and Jelle Molekamp will not be enjoying a relaxing summer this year: they’ll be participating in the international student competition iGEM, fighting potato cyst nematodes.
By Marjanne van der Bijl
15 June om 17:00 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 22 November 2020
om 16:20 uur.
June 15 at 17:00 PM.
Last modified on November 22, 2020
at 16:20 PM.

You’ve just planted a field full of potatoes, only for hungry little worms to come and eat the roots of your plants. There goes your harvest. Farmers aren’t happy: potato sickness causes them to lose 460 million euros in profits in Europe alone. 

What’s worse, the worms, potato cyst nematodes, are difficult to eradicate. In their cysts, they can survive underground for at least twenty years. Killing them involves flooding your entire field or using chemicals.     

But if molecular biology student Kim van Maldegem and molecular neurosciences student Jelle Molenkamp have anything to say about it, there will soon be a better way to fight the parasite. 

Biological machines

They and ten other UG students have been working on the project since February. They’ll be participating in the international annual competition iGEM, which will take place in Boston in late October. Multidisciplinary student teams from all over the world are using the latest techniques available to build biological machines that aim to solve a societal issue. 

The team the UG is sending this year has an environmentally friendly plan to protect potato plants. ‘As they are now, the nematodes move towards the plants, but we’ll be trying to get them to go the other way’, says Jelle. 

How will they be doing that? ‘We’re changing a bacterium that lives near the plant in such a way that it will secrete a certain neuropeptide.’ A neuropeptide is a molecule that works as a signal in the brain. In this case, it will tell the nematodes that they have to leave. Since the peptide will specifically target potato cyst nematodes, it won’t affect biodiversity, the students expect.


There’s just one issue: they haven’t been able to test their ideas in practice, since students haven’t been allowed inside the university labs due to the corona crisis. 

‘That was a bummer’, says Jelle. ‘Many people on our team have a lot of lab experience. That was one of our strong points and we were kind of banking on it, since we could get results and therefore a lot of points in the competition. When we were told we couldn’t go to the lab, we were really upset.’ 

But, says Kim, the team would not be defeated. ‘As we say here in Groningen: kop d’r veur! Keep going! We turned the disadvantage into a positive.’ The students decided to shift focus from the lab to digital models. They’ll still be working out the experiments they wanted to do in the lab.


They also started another project: a massive open online course for laypersons with an aim to improve the image attached to genetic modification. The curriculum will be online in September. 

‘Many people think genetic modification is scary’, Kim explains. ‘But as long as you stick to the ethical rules, it can be really useful. It has the potential to lead to beautiful things.’

The iGEM team is raising money for their project through crowdfunding. Would you like more information? Email



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