The iGEM competition calls on students to build interdisciplinary teams of biologists, chemists, physicists, engineers, and computer scientists to ask new questions about what synthetic biology can do. Over the past ten years, thousands of students from countries around the world have started to imagine a future that uses biology as a design medium, and that relies on open-source, standardized parts to build novel biological functions.
iGEM teams "go beyond the lab" and imagine their projects in a social/environmental context, to better understand issues that might influence the design and use of their technologies. The most successful teams often work hard to imagine their projects in a social context, and to better understand issues that might influence the design and use of their technologies. Increasingly, they also work with students and advisors from the humanities and social sciences to explore topics concerning ethical, legal, social, economic, biosafety, or biosecurity issues related to their work. Consideration of these “Human Practices” is crucial for building safe and sustainable projects that serve the public interest.
Human Practices is a key component in the development of an iGEM project where teams consider the many ways that their research can impact society. The work that they do in this varies in many ways; some teams will question how synthetic biology could change our view of life and science, others will have an active dialogue with their community in order to asses the needs of the world around them and to educate the public about synthetic biology. Some teams have ventured into policy making by creating proposals to help advance the science in their country. Students have also developed educational resources in their language to teach younger and older generations about science, engineering, and biology. The safety and security risks are assessed by all teams as a competition requirement. They must actively consider how their project will affect their environment and how it will affect public perception.
Human Practices topic areas
- Public Engagement / Dialogue
- Product Design
- Scale-Up and Deployment Issues
- Environmental Impact
- Law and Regulation
- Risk Assessment
To fully understand Cystic Fibrosis, Team Dundee made regular visits to patients and interviewed them throughout their project. They also experienced how it felt to give a spit sample by trying it themselves. They were invited to give a talk at the UK Cystic Fibrosis conference.
Sumbawagen worked with the farmers who would benefit from their project, participated in the Sumbawa Festival, and engaged the local government and the US ambassador. The team also spoke with their local religious leaders, including an imam and priest.
The arrival of DNA kits has been a problem for all teams in Mexico. To change this, Tec-Monterrey crafted a law proposal to allow the easy transit of biological material. With the help of lawyers and the other Mexico teams, they submitted their proposal to the government.
SydneyUni Australia 2013
"Strange Nature" is a writing competition for Australian high-school students that SydneyUni Australia created. The students had to write a 1000 word essay to answer the question: "What problems will be caused or will be solved with synthetic biology?"
This team interviewed 3 experts to understand the different bioethical implications of synthetic biology. Team Virginia filmed this documentary to cover the topics of biosafety, intellectual ownership, medicine, and the potential impact of their own project.
Buenos Aires 2013
Buenos Aires' designed a user-friendly Arsenic Biosensor; however, they felt that their project wouldn't be fulfilled until they could bring to society. To address this, they created a map to show arsenic concentration in bodies of water around their city.
UT Tokyo 2012
Software was the core component for UT Tokyo. They developed a series of games and apps that aimed to help the iGEM community; a friendly method for finding BioBricks, and puzzles that made learning about BioBricks and genes sequences fun.
After introducing a new chassis to iGEM, they questioned if this term, borrowed from engineering, should apply to living organisms. Team Evry raised thought provoking questions and made a deep philosophical and historical analysis of Human Practices.
The specific gene Stanford-Brown wanted to use was protected by a patent, so they set out to reach to other teams and discovered this was a common problem for many of them. With the help of patent attorneys, they created a practical guide to solve this.