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The International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

Artificial intelligence AI research of robot and cyborg development for future of people living.

The International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition

The International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition (iGEM) is a prestigious annual event that brings together students, researchers, and professionals from diverse fields to collaborate and innovate in the realm of synthetic biology. Since its inception, the competition has evolved into a global phenomenon, fostering creativity, teamwork, and ethical responsibility in addressing complex scientific challenges.

This essay delves into the history, objectives, and impact of the iGEM competition, shedding light on its significance in shaping the future of synthetic biology.

The primary objective of the iGEM competition is to promote education, research, and collaboration in synthetic biology. Participants are tasked with designing and executing innovative projects using standardized genetic parts called “BioBricks,” which can be assembled into novel biological systems.

Teams have approximately ten months to conceptualize, design, and implement their projects before presenting them at the annual iGEM Giant Jamboree, where they are evaluated by a panel of expert judges.

The competition encourages interdisciplinary collaboration and promotes the development of essential skills such as problem-solving, project management, communication, and ethical decision-making. In addition to the scientific component, teams must also consider the broader societal implications of their work, engaging with stakeholders and addressing potential ethical, legal, and social issues.

The International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition plays a vital role in shaping the future of synthetic biology, inspiring participants to explore the potential of genetic engineering to address real-world problems. By fostering innovation, collaboration, and responsible research practices, iGEM is not only advancing the field of synthetic biology but also nurturing a generation of scientists committed to making a positive impact on society.

The purpose of iGem

This part of the essay explores the purpose of the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition, focusing on its contributions to scientific research, education, skill development, and community building. The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Competition has garnered global recognition as a driving force in the field of synthetic biology. By providing a platform for students, researchers, and professionals to collaborate, innovate, and engage with real-world problems, iGEM has profoundly influenced the scientific community and society at large.

Advancing Scientific Research

One of the most significant benefits of the iGEM competition is its role in advancing scientific research in synthetic biology. Participants are tasked with designing and implementing innovative projects using standardized genetic parts called “BioBricks,” which can be combined to create novel biological systems.

View of a Mechanical engineer working on a machine.

Over the years, iGEM teams have made groundbreaking contributions to the field, addressing challenges in areas such as medicine, agriculture, and environmental management. These projects not only push the boundaries of synthetic biology but also demonstrate its potential to tackle real-world problems, fostering a spirit of innovation that permeates the scientific community.

Education and Training

The iGEM competition offers participants a unique opportunity to gain hands-on experience in synthetic biology, providing an invaluable educational experience that complements traditional classroom learning. By engaging with complex scientific challenges, students and researchers develop a deeper understanding of the field’s underlying concepts and techniques.

The competition also exposes participants to interdisciplinary collaboration, as teams often comprise members from diverse fields such as biology, engineering, computer science, and social sciences. This cross-disciplinary approach fosters a holistic understanding of synthetic biology and its potential applications, equipping participants with the knowledge and skills needed to advance the field.

Skill Development

Beyond its contributions to education and research, the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition plays a crucial role in developing essential skills that are transferable to various professional and academic pursuits. These skills include:

  • Problem-Solving: iGEM projects require participants to think critically and develop innovative solutions to complex problems, honing their problem-solving abilities.
  • Project Management: Teams must effectively manage their projects, balancing time, resources, and objectives to achieve their goals, thus developing valuable project management skills.
  • Communication: The competition emphasizes the importance of clear and effective communication, both within teams and to the broader scientific community, fostering strong oral and written communication skills.
  • Collaboration: Working together as a team, participants learn the importance of cooperation, delegation, and consensus-building in achieving a common goal.
  • Ethics and Human Practices: iGEM encourages participants to consider the ethical, legal, and societal implications of their work, fostering responsible research practices and informed decision-making.

Community Building and Networking

The iGEM competition also offers participants the unique opportunity to connect with like-minded individuals from across the globe, fostering a sense of community and collaboration. At the annual Giant Jamboree, teams come together to present their projects, exchange ideas, and network with other participants, researchers, and professionals.

These connections not only serve to advance the field of synthetic biology but also provide invaluable networking opportunities for participants, helping to shape their academic and professional trajectories.

The history of iGem

Let’s talk about the history of the iGEM competition, tracing its growth and development from its inception at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to its current status as a globally recognized event.

engineers working on a machine

The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Competition has evolved from a modest student project to a global platform for the advancement of synthetic biology. By fostering innovation, collaboration, and responsible research practices, iGEM has transformed the landscape of the field and nurtured the next generation of scientists.

The Beginnings: MIT and the Birth of iGEM

The International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition’s origins can be traced back to 2003, when a group of MIT students embarked on a unique project focused on synthetic biology under the guidance of their professors. The following year, the project was expanded into the first iGEM competition, which featured five teams from various institutions across the United States.

The concept behind iGEM was to create a competitive platform for students to develop innovative solutions using standardized genetic parts called “BioBricks.” These BioBricks could be combined in novel ways to engineer new biological systems, allowing teams to push the boundaries of synthetic biology and demonstrate its potential to address real-world challenges.

Expanding Horizons: iGEM Goes Global

In 2005, the competition saw a significant milestone as it opened its doors to international teams for the first time, signaling the beginning of the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition’s global expansion. With 13 teams participating from five countries, this marked a turning point in the competition’s history, setting the stage for its future growth.

Over the years, the iGEM competition has continued to expand, drawing participants from various educational levels and disciplines. In 2011, the competition introduced a high school track, and by 2013, the first Graduate Division was launched. Today, iGEM boasts participation from more than 45 countries, with over 300 teams competing in the annual event.

The Giant Jamboree: A Celebration of Innovation

In 2014, iGEM introduced the Giant Jamboree, an annual event that brings together thousands of participants, judges, and supporters to showcase their projects and compete for awards. The Giant Jamboree not only serves as a platform for teams to present their work but also fosters collaboration and networking among students, researchers, and professionals from around the world.

The iGEM Foundation: A Step Towards Sustainability

To ensure the competition’s longevity and support the growing synthetic biology community, the iGEM Foundation was established as an independent nonprofit organization in 2012. The foundation’s mission is to promote synthetic biology education, foster collaboration, and advance the responsible development of the field.

In addition to organizing the annual competition, the foundation hosts workshops, conferences, and other educational initiatives, highlighting its commitment to shaping the future of synthetic biology.

The eligibility and application process

Let’s talk about the specifics of eligibility and application for the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition, providing guidance for prospective participants. For those interested in participating, understanding the eligibility criteria and application process is crucial to ensuring a successful entry.

Eligibility criteria

The iGEM competition is open to individuals from diverse educational backgrounds and levels, including high school students, undergraduates, and postgraduates. To be eligible, participants must meet the following criteria:

Educational level: Teams are divided into three tracks – high school, undergraduate, and overgraduate (Graduate). High school teams must comprise students enrolled in high school or equivalent, while undergraduate teams consist of students enrolled in undergraduate programs. The Overgraduate track is open to participants who have already completed their undergraduate education, including graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and professionals.

Team composition: Each team must have at least two instructors who serve as mentors and guides throughout the competition. Instructors can be faculty members, researchers, or industry professionals. Additionally, teams must have a primary contact who is responsible for communicating with the iGEM Foundation.

Two Engineers working on a project.

Institutional affiliation: Teams should have an affiliation with an educational institution or organization that provides resources and support for their iGEM project. This affiliation can be a high school, college, university, or research institution.

Application Process

The application process for the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition involves several steps, as detailed below:

  1. Team Registration: The first step in the application process is to register a team on the iGEM website. During registration, teams must provide information about their team members, instructors, and institutional affiliation. Registration typically begins in the fall, with deadlines in the spring of the following year.
  2. Team Wiki: Each registered team must create a wiki page on the iGEM website, which serves as a platform to document their project progress, share results, and communicate with the iGEM community.
  3. Project Proposal and Safety Forms: Teams are required to submit a project proposal that outlines their project goals, methodology, and potential applications. Additionally, teams must complete safety forms to ensure that their project adheres to the iGEM safety guidelines and regulations.
  4. Participation Fee: There is a participation fee for the iGEM competition, which covers team registration, access to the BioBrick distribution kit, and attendance at the Giant Jamboree. Financial assistance may be available for eligible teams through the iGEM Foundation.

Preparing for the Competition

Once the application process is complete, teams should begin working on their iGEM projects, which typically span around ten months. Teams are encouraged to collaborate, communicate, and engage with the iGEM community throughout the competition. During the annual Giant Jamboree, teams will have the opportunity to present their projects, network with other participants, and compete for awards.

The competition details

Let’s delve into the details of the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition, exploring its structure, evaluation criteria, and the various awards that recognize exceptional contributions in the field. Attracting participants from across the globe, the competition seeks to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers to tackle real-world problems through the development of novel biological systems.

Structure of the iGEM Competition

The iGEM competition typically spans around ten months, beginning with team registration in the fall and culminating in the Giant Jamboree the following year. The competition is divided into three primary tracks: high school, undergrad, and postgrad. Additionally, participants have the option to focus on various categories within these tracks, such as environment, health & medicine, and energy.

Teams are tasked with designing and implementing projects using standardized genetic parts called “BioBricks,” which can be combined to create new biological systems. Throughout the competition, teams work collaboratively to develop their projects, document their progress on project wiki pages, and engage with the broader synthetic biology community.

Evaluation Criteria

The iGEM competition emphasizes not only scientific innovation but also responsible research practices and interdisciplinary collaboration. As such, the evaluation criteria encompass a broad range of factors, including:

Scientific Rigor: Teams are expected to demonstrate sound scientific methodology, robust experimental design, and thorough data analysis.

Innovation: Projects should exhibit creativity and originality in addressing a real-world problem within the chosen category.

Councillor talking to a female student.

Collaboration: Teams are encouraged to work together, share knowledge, and contribute to the iGEM community, including the development of novel BioBricks.

Communication: Effective communication of project goals, results, and potential applications is crucial in the competition, both through project wikis and oral presentations at the Giant Jamboree.

Human Practices: Teams must consider the ethical, legal, and societal implications of their work, engaging with stakeholders and addressing potential concerns.

Awards and Recognition

The International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition offers various awards to recognize exceptional contributions in different aspects of the competition. These include:

  • Track Awards: Each track (High School, Undergraduate, and Overgraduate) has a winner and runner-up, highlighting the best-performing teams within their respective divisions.
  • Special Prizes: These awards recognize outstanding achievements in specific areas, such as Best New BioBrick, Best Model, Best Software Tool, and Best Human Practices.
  • Chairman’s Award: This prestigious award is given to the team that best embodies the spirit of the iGEM competition, demonstrating exceptional teamwork, collaboration, and impact on the synthetic biology community.

Additionally, teams can earn medals (bronze, silver, or gold) based on their achievements in meeting specific criteria throughout the competition, including project documentation, presentation, and collaboration.

iGem’s impact

The International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition has, since its inception, made a significant impact in synthetic biology. By providing a platform for students, researchers, and professionals to collaborate and innovate, iGEM has not only fostered the growth of the field but also inspired the next generation of scientists to tackle real-world problems.

Scientific Research and Innovation

The iGEM competition has made significant contributions to the field of synthetic biology through the development of novel biological systems and the expansion of the BioBrick registry, a repository of standardized genetic parts.

Over the years, participants have engineered groundbreaking solutions to address pressing challenges in areas such as medicine, agriculture, and environmental management. Some notable examples include:

  • Biosensors: iGEM teams have developed various biosensors for detecting environmental contaminants, such as heavy metals, pathogens, and harmful chemicals, paving the way for improved monitoring and remediation strategies.
  • Biodegradation: Participants have engineered bacteria capable of degrading plastic waste, offering a potential solution to the global plastic pollution crisis.
  • Gene Editing: iGEM projects have contributed to advancements in gene-editing techniques, opening up new possibilities for applications in agriculture, medicine, and beyond.

Many iGEM projects have led to patents, startups, and further research, showcasing the tangible impact of the competition on scientific innovation.

Education and Skill Development

The iGEM competition plays a crucial role in promoting education in synthetic biology by providing hands-on, real-world experience for participants. Through their involvement in the competition, students and researchers have the opportunity to develop essential skills in areas such as:

Three students walking in front of a school building.

  • Experimental Design and Methodology: Participants learn to develop and execute rigorous scientific experiments, enhancing their understanding of fundamental concepts and techniques in synthetic biology.
  • Problem-Solving: International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition projects often require innovative solutions to complex problems, fostering critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
  • Project Management: Teams must manage their projects effectively, balancing time, resources, and objectives to achieve their goals.
  • Communication: The competition emphasizes the importance of clear and effective communication, both within teams and to the broader scientific community.
  • Ethics and Human Practices: iGEM encourages participants to consider the ethical, legal, and societal implications of their work, fostering responsible research practices and informed decision-making.

Building a Global Community

The iGEM competition fosters a sense of global community and collaboration, with participants from over 45 countries working together to solve pressing challenges. By connecting students, researchers, and professionals from diverse backgrounds, iGEM promotes the exchange of ideas and the development of lasting relationships.

This global network of synthetic biology enthusiasts not only drives the progress of the field but also nurtures a generation of scientists committed to making a positive impact on society.

Conclusion

Through its contributions to scientific research, education, and the creation of a global community, iGEM continues to shape the future of the field and inspire the next generation of scientists.

As the competition evolves and expands, its impact on synthetic biology and the broader implications for society will undoubtedly continue to resonate, driving progress and innovation for years to come. The International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition has left an indelible mark on the field of synthetic biology and beyond.

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