The seventeen sustainable development goals (SDGs) were derived and adopted by the United Nations (UN) in 2015 [1]. Since then, they have acted as a call to action for both organizations and nations to work together to solve some of the world’s largest problems. This includes the organizations that are emerging from the application of Synthetic biology. As these are fairly new, they have the opportunity to immediately incorporate the SDGs into their organizational culture and products, in contrast to other more matured industries (e.g. the chemical industry) that now have to make the transition towards a more sustainable business model. Both for the old and the new, the importance of being involved in the discussion about sustainable business practices and solutions cannot be understated. Individual people can make a difference and within our project we have taken this to heart.

We aim to contribute to the SDGs by tackling the locust crisis, as well as incorporating them into the design of our biopesticide. We recognise that all seventeen goals are interrelated, so promoting one can indirectly promote others. With PHOCUS we directly support #1 no poverty, #2 zero hunger and #15 life on land (displayed in Figure 1).

Figure 1. Main SDGs contributed to by PHOCUS. From left to right; #1 no poverty, #2 zero hunger and #15 life on land.

Locust plagues pose a major threat to the progress of the SDGs. For our project it was important to gain insight into which are most relevant. Therefore, we spoke to Susan Nguku from the Kenyan Ministry of Agriculture. She shared accounts of distressed farmers that bang pots and pans to try and scare away the locusts, as well as the fact that there are currently no economic relief initiatives for the affected locals in Kenya. This scene can be found all around the world and it is pushing people back into poverty and famine (goal 1). The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations predicts that a staggering 10% of the world population will be affected by the current plague [2]. This directly threatens the economic (goal 1) and food stability (goal 2) of millions of people that depend on the crops destroyed by the locusts [3]. Currently, there are many people and organisations working hard to control the locust upsurge, using a range of different pesticides. However, these solutions aren’t without drawbacks.

The most used control method is the application of chemical pesticides. While effective, they are also hazardous to the environment and to all organisms that it comes into contact with. In an interview with the FAO, they confirmed that the chemical pesticides are toxic to insects, livestock, and humans. From an ecological and human health standpoint there is no sustainable method for long term locust control. Luckily, there is also an alternative, a bio-pesticide called Metarhizium anisopliae, which is a fungus that is specific to locusts. Further investigating this form of control led us to approach Cyril Piou, who told us that Metarhizium anisopliae, but also biopesticides in general, works rather slowly and often takes 7 to 14 days to kill the locusts [4]. Cyril was one of the first people to inform us that there is a pressing need for a solution that is both safe and fast. This was later also repeated by the FAO who voiced their concerns about the lack of a sustainable control tool.
The SDGs intend to provide projects of all sizes guidelines for how to allocate their resources and engage with stakeholders. After reading about the locust crisis and our conversations with both Susan and Cyril, it was clear how we could best utilize our time to both develop our project, as well as contribute to the SDGs. We went on to develop PHOCUS.

PHOCUS is a unique complementary approach that does not compromise on either safety or the speed with which it kills the locusts. In the process of making our project safe we have chosen to implement molecules that are toxic specifically to locusts. The Cry7Ca1 molecule is specific to the locust species Locusta migratoria manilensis [5]. The genes silenced by the RNA interference (RNAi) are specific to locusts. By performing Basic Local Alignment Search Tool (BLAST) searches against databases such as the 1000 Insect Transcriptome Evolution (1KITE) it is possible to check for off-targets [6, 7, 8]. Having no off-targets would mean that our biopesticide won’t pose a threat to other insects or disrupt the local ecosystem (goal 15).

In the field, it is important to have a control method that can be used as an emergency response. For this, it is vital that the biopesticides have as little time delay as possible, thereby reducing the number of people pushed into poverty (goal 1) and hunger (goal 2). Therefore, developing a fast working biopesticide was vital for our design. Furthermore, PHOCUS was also designed to be safe - having no side effects for the environment or the animals that live in it (goal 15). It provides a more sustainable alternative to current pesticides, especially regarding life on land. We wanted to implement this sustainable mindset not only in our solution but also in our path to getting there. Therefore, we didn’t perform unnecessary experiments on living locusts. Instead, we used two progressive mathematical models to investigate the feasibility of PHOCUS and the behaviour of the pesticide within the locust gut.

Figure 2. Social media post by JOGL in which they share the SDG article about PHOCUS.

As part of our work to contribute to, #1 no poverty, #2 zero hunger and #15 life on land, we joined the iGEM collaborative environment on the JOGL platform. JOGL is a platform for open and collaborative problem solving. The platform, whose acronym stands for Just One Giant Lab, promotes a truly interdisciplinary approach that enables groups to solve problems through innovation. In particular, it encourages groups to find solutions to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. The iGEM collaborative environment on JOGL, has enabled others to contribute to our work and will continue to do so in the future. In this context, Marianna Limas interviewed us for the platform and wrote an article on Medium. This article was later shared on the JOGL social media pages (the post itself can be seen above, Figure 2). This helped us reach a wider audience and engage them in both our project and the SDGs.

The SGDs were also incorporated into our entrepreneurial plan for the future of PHOCUS. They are especially prominent in our core values regarding responsible innovation. In this part of our project we emphasised sustainability in two ways: from an economic (goal 1) and an environmental perspective (goal 15). To be socio-economic, we evaluated different strategies on monitoring unintended side-effects. From the environmental sustainability point of view, we performed a life cycle analysis and footprint minimization strategy, where we critically evaluated the operation side of the company.

Figure 3. Snapshot of Eline (left) and Gabriela (right) teaching how to prepare locust infused recipes.

Driven to find other ways of promoting sustainability within our project we looked for alternative methods to implement the SDGs into our project. We believe that besides contributing to the SDGs themselves this would encourage others to look for innovative ways to incorporate these goals into their project or their lives. We learned from Simonis BV that in certain regions, local populations are known to eat the dead locusts, even when they are contaminated with chemical pesticides. Even though they are aware of the dangers, they often don’t have an alternative due to the desperate circumstances. After learning this, we have made sure that PHOCUS is also safe for humans to eat (goal 2). To further promote the locust crisis in general and consuming dead locusts we made a three-part cooking show (Figure 3), where we show how locusts can also be incorporated into several western dishes