BioBuilder Club investigates disease killing trees in Oak Park and River Forest

March 22, 2019

Oak Park and River Forest High School BioBuilder Club members Zoe Klein, Maddie Judson, Virginia Lundeen, and Carli Tucci are on a mission to save local elm trees affected by Dutch Elm Disease (DED).  


DED kills thousands of trees in Illinois and is especially prevalent in Oak Park and River Forest. Caused by elm bark beetles, which burrow into tree trunks and transmit two species of fungi, DED is characterized by leaves that curl and turn gray-yellow, then brown. DED-infected trees ultimately must be cut down.


This school year, the group has worked on finding a biotech solution to DED by researching ecologically safe alternatives to the pesticides used to treat infected trees. They concluded that by isolating a set of genes in the bacteria Pseudomonas fluorenscens, which has antifungal and insecticidal properties, and cloning it into E. coli bacteria, they could create a protein that repels the beetles that infect trees with DED. They presented their work at the BioBuilder Final Assembly conference in Cambridge, Mass., on March 15, 2019. 


New to OPRF in the 2017-2018 academic year, the BioBuilder Club focuses on synthetic biology and bioengineering. “Club members think of bacteria and genes as technology,” sponsor and OPRF science teacher Stephen Traphagen said. “They study ways to use them as machines to solve human problems.”


The club is part of a larger program started by The BioBuilder Educational Foundation, which engages high school teams around the world to combine engineering approaches and scientific know-how to design, build, and test their own project ideas. Each club is supplied with a BioBuilder textbook, a kit of laboratory reagents, and support from remote scientist mentors during the academic year.


Learn more about The BioBuilder Educational Foundation here.