The iGEM competition calls on students to build interdisciplinary teams that 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 an engineering and design medium, relying on open-source standardized parts to build novel biological functions.
As part of this process, iGEM teams "go beyond the lab" and situate their projects in a social/environmental context, to better understand the issues that might influence the design and use of their technologies. The most successful teams will deeply engage with these issues throughout their project lifecycle. They will adapt and use rigorous methods or evidence-based approaches, carefully and creatively ensuring that their projects are:
responsible| conducted with care and foresight
good for the world| can be reasonably anticipated to benefit and not harm people, to distribute benefits fairly, and other similar ethical considerations
To help accomplish this goal, iGEM includes judges and committee members from the humanities and social sciences. Teams, too, work with students and advisors from beyond STEM to explore topics concerning ethical, legal, social, economic, biosafety, or biosecurity factors related to their work. Consideration of these “Human Practices” is a vital part of iGEM’s mission to train the next generation of biological engineers and is reflected in the competition medal criteria, special prizes and overall project scoring.
With each passing year, iGEMers consistently push the boundaries of synthetic biology, which in turn presents new challenges in Human Practices. In response, teams must develop new skills and methods to better understand how new technical capabilities will fit in a real-world context. As Human Practices advances, so does our ability to solve societal problems with the help of synthetic biology.
The latest examples and detailed team instructions can be found on the 2020 Human Practices Hub.
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.