C. elegans worms, imaged with ZEISS Stemi 508 & Axiocam. Reflected light, double arm gooseneck, brightfield.


Elio, an Italian researcher, leads the innovative BABOTS project. Despite initial setbacks, Elio's perseverance led to success. The project focuses on using worms to eliminate bacteria, showcasing a practical application of genetic modification.

Elio Tuci is a dedicated researcher at the University of Namur, Belgium. He has found himself far from his home in Italy, deeply involved in a revolutionary project called BABOTS. “How I ended up here is a long story,” he begins. Elio pursued his Ph.D. abroad, in Great Britain, starting to build a career overseas, and then moved to Belgium, where he is currently based with his family.

The idea behind the BABOTS project was developed in 2019 from a chance meeting between Elio and another partner, Dr. Ithai Rabinowitch, from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who was the speaker at the ALife 2019 conference they both attended. They stayed at the same hotel, and the day after the conference, they met at breakfast. They started talking, and one thing led to another, and the idea of BABOTS was born. Immediately they put themselves into work and submitted the application in 2020, in the middle of the Covid pandemic. Unfortunately, this first attempt was unsuccessful, as was the second in 2021. Not discouraged but determined, they decided to try one last time – and they succeeded.

BABOTS focuses on leveraging the social behaviours and individual differences among worms to control their movements and tasks for human benefit. The primary application involves instructing worms to move to specific locations to consume and eliminate bacteria, by reprogramming worms’ behaviour with the design of neural mechanisms underpinning responses that are not part of their natural repertoire. The goal is to create a practical, ethical, and controlled method of using worms, employing genetic modifications to control their behaviour for specific tasks, such as bacteria elimination, starting with applications in vertical farming.

Elio highlights how finding the right partners for the project was challenging, particularly for the commercial application aspect. Initially, they struggled to find commercial partners due to the ethical implications and the nascent stage of the technology. Eventually, they partnered with an Italian company, Società ZERO, specialising in vertical farming, which was enthusiastic about the project and eager to be involved.

Elio emphasises the importance of perseverance and the value of their idea. Despite winning on their third attempt, they believed in the project and kept trying, always improving from the previous attempts and applying valuable lessons learned.

“We were always convinced of the value of our idea and used the feedback to improve. This motivation and belief in our project kept us going, and we committed to three attempts. Fortunately, we succeeded on the third one.”

Looking ahead, Elio sees the project’s potential to make a significant scientific impact and hopes to continue building on their scientific achievements. They aim to demonstrate the feasibility of the technology implemented in a controlled environment. The idea is to move beyond the academic sphere and bring the technology into practice, considering its valuable applications, thus impacting agriculture and potentially other fields.

Reflecting on the project’s personal impact, Elio mentions that while his life hasn’t drastically changed, the interdisciplinary nature of the project requires continuous learning and the exchange of concepts and ideas with his colleagues.

As the BABOTS project progresses, Elio remains focused on immediate goals, which will allow them to build great success and potentially make a broader impact.

Image: ZEISS Microscopy from Germany, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

01 Jul 2024
WRITTEN BY Caterina Falcinellli