International Genetically Engineered Machine


iGEM's programs are designed around our core values.

The iGEM values are:

  • Integrity
  • Good sportsmanship
  • Respect
  • Honesty
  • Celebration
  • Cooperation
  • Effort
  • Excellence

Values in Practice

Since its inception iGEM has worked to ensure that excellence in synthetic biology goes beyond what happens in the lab. Decisions in science and engineering shape, and are shaped by, the societies we create. Social, political, economic, and ethical aspects of synthetic biology cannot be an afterthought of research and development. Rather, they should be considered from project conception all the way through the innovation process. Synthetic biology is not just science or engineering. It is a practice of building life and the societies and environments that support that life. It is a practice that is intimately human, with all our flaws and virtues. This approach is embedded in the values we espouse, including: integrity; good sportsmanship; respect; honesty; celebration; cooperation; effort; and excellence. All those using synthetic biology should live up to similar values. That includes the iGEM Foundation, the teams that compete, the organizations or companies that support us, and our ever-growing alumni.

A team visiting industry stakeholders

A team speaking with potential users

We are committed to working towards a fairer and more inclusive world, where synthetic biology is a tool developed and used responsibly by ever more diverse groups of people, in many more locations, to help address problems that affect their lives. We have helped make this vision real and now have over 35,000 alumni with whom we have shared these hopes. We have had teams from every inhabited continent, from spaces not traditionally associated with biotechnology, and people with no background in science or engineering. To help all those interested to engage, we operate according to sharing principles and practices, recognizing that building a shared infrastructure can allow many more ideas and people to flourish.

One way we try to implement our values is through the evolution of the competition design and organization. The competition offers incentives, including special awards and medal criteria, for exploring issues outside of the lab. We provide resources, through our wikis and committees (including Human Practices Committee, Diversity Committee, Safety and Security Committee, and Executive Judging Committee) to help teams ensure their work is responsible and beneficial. We maintain an independent Responsible Conduct Committee which acts as the ultimate arbiter for cases of potential misconduct or failure to live up to our values.

After iGEM Delegates visiting the United Nations Biological Weapons Convention

A biosafety and biosecurity challenge provided to all teams since 2017

Through our Safety and Security Program, iGEM has both rules and policies to manage risks to competitors, their colleagues, communities and the environment. These require teams to address core ideas and current issues in research and engineering ethics, including: biosafety; biosecurity and dual use; human experimentation; human subjects research; animal use; gene drives; and anti-microbial resistance. On an ongoing basis, teams are required to demonstrate how they are assessing and managing risks and adopting best practices in these areas. Their efforts are reviewed at different points in the competition lifecycle by external experts. Once again, through its wikis, iGEM provides tools and resources to help teams work safely and securely. Our Safety and Security Committee, with members from around the world and with different backgrounds, considers projects that may pose elevated risk and works with teams directly to help ensure the risk is appropriately managed.

Our work to help ensure the responsible use of synthetic biology goes beyond the competition. Both the iGEM Foundation and our wider community have shared our experiences with relevant national and international forums. We work to continually improve how we deal with risk, how we can make better use of tools and approaches developed by others, and how we can contribute to ongoing efforts to prevent harm. We encourage iGEM teams to engage with those who may use it or could be affected by their work. We believe synthetic biology is a tool that our communities can use to help build a better world - not one that should be imposed. To this end, we task our teams to think about what should happen if their work was eventually to be fully developed. Some iGEM projects have been developed into companies, some of which in turn are field leaders in engaging with ethical issues.

Responsibility lies at the heart of everything iGEM does

After iGEM Delegates visiting the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity

We understand that these issues are complicated, require ongoing attention and reflection, and involve contested and political issues that can never be fully resolved. We are committed to continuing to work on them and actively reflecting on our progress over time. We are exploring new ways to work with our community to identify at an earlier stage any projects that may need greater oversight and support. We are building new tools to identify and manage risks. We will continue to expand our interactions with those best placed to help ensure our work is safe, secure and responsible. We want to know where we are doing well and where there is still room for improvement. We want to make better use of the international nature of iGEM and are creating new opportunities for community-wide and open discussions on what should be (and what should not be) acceptable uses of synthetic biology. We will share these insights and feed them into discussions into the ethical and responsible application of emerging technologies. We are keen to work with all those interested to better understand and capture the norms of responsible behavior that must underpin synthetic biology. We are keen to work with you to bring about a fairer and more inclusive future.

Our efforts to understand how to translate our values into effective action is an ongoing activity. It is the result of discussions by interested individuals from our community with a wide range of different backgrounds. We seek constructive engagement with all those interested in improving its content.

Special Advisors

In recognition that translating our values into practice is a challenging and ongoing task, we work with a number of special advisors to help us improve how iGEM and its teams deal with these issues

  • Dr. Lisa Rasmussen, Associate Professor, Philosophy, UNC Charlotte - Special advisor on research ethics
  • Katherine Littler, Senior Ethics Specialist, Co-Lead, Global Health Ethics, Health Systems and Innovation Cluster, World Health Organization

Chairman's Award

The iGEM Competition promotes strong values in the teams. Students are expected to be honest with their research, cooperate with one another, practice good sportsmanship, be respectful of their peers and celebrate everyone's efforts. The Chairman's Award is presented to the team which best embodies the iGEM values.

The first ever Chairman’s Award in iGEM was given to Team Sumbawagen.
This team did not let anything stop them from participating in iGEM to the greatest extent possible.

The Sumbawagen team comes from Sumbawa, Indonesia. Sumbawa is an island famous for its honey. The team wanted to address a major problem in their community: the counterfeiting or adulteration of honey. Through a bacterial system, they would create a device able to detect if a sample was genuine Sumbawa honey or some imported product.

The team enrolled in the Measurement track and despite lacking a fluorometer they wrote to the Measurement committee saying, “We really want to be in the measurement track, but there is no fluorometer we can use.” So instead they used their own camera system and documented the process. The outcome was one of the most beautiful reports of a negative result; a well documented, precise measure on how “you cannot measure green fluorescence with this camera system.”

Sumbawa was hit by rolling power outages during wiki freeze but this didn’t stop the team. Their hard work and perseverance can be seen throughout their website. It is also clear on their wiki how they reached out to their community in every step of the way. In their Policy and Practices video you can see them teaching farmers how to pipette, and the excitement of the farmers as biotechnology is coming to their corner of the Pacific. You can also watch the local Mayor and the Chief of Police getting involved helping them out and the Imam and the Priest give their blessing to genetic engineering.

This team humbled the whole iGEM community.
Randy Rettberg presented the Chairman’s Award and Jake Beal, the measurement track chair, completed the Sumbawagen story. He spoke with the team and he mentioned during the Awards Ceremony, one of the phrases mentioned by a team member was: “We are new, but we know that we will succeed because we have great heart.”

Congratulations! Team Sumbawagen!