October 9, 2016, by Brigitte Nerlich

iGEM comes to Nottingham

I recently mentioned the ‘word’ iGEM when chatting with a ‘lay’ person about synthetic biology; whereupon the lay person looked at me quizzically and wondered what an iGEM was. Was it like an iPhone, but for gems? Somebody who overheard this exchange chipped in with a comment that made us all laugh. He said that this reminded him of various definitions put forward on the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Sorry I haven’t a clue’ (which are then collected in the Uxbridge English Dictionary), such as Icicle – ‘A bicycle made by Apple’; or Irony – ‘Claiming to be Barker or Corbett’.

But, of course, people who do research in synthetic biology anywhere in the world know what an iGEM is… and now it’s coming to Nottingham, to the Synthetic Biology Research Centre. So, we are looking for undergraduates from the natural sciences, the social sciences and the humanities to get involved – but involved in what?

I shall first provide a brief overview of the history and aims of iGEM and then I’ll tell you how to come on board.

What’s (an) iGEM?

The word is an acronym that stands for ‘International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition‘. This is a “an annual, world wide, synthetic biology event aimed at undergraduate university students, as well as high school and graduate students. Multidisciplinary teams work all summer long to build genetically engineered systems using standard biological parts called Biobricks. iGEM teams work inside and outside the lab, creating sophisticated projects that strive to create a positive contribution to their communities and the world.” When did it all start?

iGEM began in January 2003 as an independent study course at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where students developed biological devices to make cells blink. This course became a summer competition with 5 teams in 2004 and continued to grow to 13 teams in 2005; it has now expanded to 280 teams in 2015, reaching over more than 30 countries.”

The logo for the competition is based on cogwheels (see image above), symbolising the fact that synthetic biology is trying to apply engineering principles to biology. The winner of the competition gets a gold Lego-BioBrick, symbolising the Lego-like use of standardised parts used to create new biological mechanisms and entities.

What does the competition involve and what are its aims?

The competition encourages “interdisciplinary teams of biologists, chemists, physicists, engineers, and computer scientists [as well as social scientists and humanities students] to ask new questions about what synthetic biology can do”. They try “to imagine a future that uses biology as a design medium, and that relies on open-source, standardized parts to build novel biological functions.”

Student teams are given a kit of biological parts at the beginning of the summer from the Registry of Standard Biological Parts consisting of various genetic components such promoters, terminators, reporter elements, and plasmid backbones. … they use these parts and new parts of their own design to build biological systems and operate them in living cells.”

Students work on these projects together over the summer and in the autumn the projects are showcased and judged at a giant jamboree in Boston, MA, USA.

But it’s not just about doing good ‘science’; it’s also about doing ‘good’ science. The competition promotes a number of values, such as honesty, integrity, good sportsmanship, respect, cooperation and so on…. To which on might also want to add responsibility and responsible innovation.

Science, interdisciplinarity and responsibility

Beyond building biological systems, broader aims of iGEM include: to promote the open and transparent development of tools for engineering biology, and to help construct a society that can productively and safely apply biological technology.

Every iGEM team should therefore engage with both scientific and societal aspects of their project. These societal aspects are sometimes referred to as human practices.

This means that 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.“ (emphasis added)

Projects might include “environmental impact analyses, museum exhibits, intellectual property guides, children’s books, ‘white hat’ biosecurity investigations, forums with legislators, and even street theatre.” Here is an Exemplary Past Projects list to get an idea of the scope of possible activities!

How to choose an iGEM project

Andy Balmer, a sociology lecturer at the University of Nottingham, is one of the best-known social scientists to have participated in one of the iGEM projects. He and his colleagues have even written a book about his involvement, which is worth reading. In this blog post I only want to refer to one of Andy’s blot posts, where he talks about how to choose a project. He writes: “It can be easy to get lost in making your iGEM choices, particularly if there are lots of options and you’re excited about a lot of different ideas. It is of course part of iGEM that you should have fun, but choosing your iGEM project has to be an ethical choice and it is one that you should make explicitly, that you should think about carefully, and that you should talk about with a range of different people before settling on an idea.”

iGEM in Nottingham – important info

Are you an engineer, social scientist, mathematician, computer scientist or biologist?

Join the SBRC-Nottingham iGEM team in an international synthetic biology competition!!

The Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) is an international synthetic biology competition, organized at MIT in Cambridge/Boston since 2003. The competition is widely considered as a prestigious world championship for undergraduate students in particular in the area of molecular biotechnology: www.igem.org

Why take part?

  • Interdisciplinarity and teamwork
  • Hands-on practical experience – Earn up to £2,000
  • Project and group based learning
  • Attendance at the global iGEM jamboree in Boston, USA in November 2017

What skills are we looking for?

  • We are seeking final year undergraduate students (you will need be aged 23 or under on March 31, 2017) to join our team during the summer of 2017 under the guidance of instructors and advisors.
  • Commitment to being a proactive member of an interdisciplinary project
  • Knowledge of ethical and social aspects of science and innovation
  • Must be a great communicator with good team-working skills
  • Ideally have some basic knowledge about synthetic biology

**If you would like to apply, please email louise.dynes@nottingham.ac.uk with a biography and a short summary of your research interests by Monday 31st October 2016**


Posted in responsible innovationsynthetic biology