iGEM is the Future of Biotechnology

Jennifer Lopez and Zachary Quinto.

Biotech is going mainstream in a big way.

That was the message to the more than 5,600 high school and college students crowded into Boston’s Hynes Convention Center for the 2016 International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. Lopez’s production company is producing CRISPR, a near-future crime drama named after the gene-editing tool that Science Magazine dubbed 2015’s Breakthrough of the Year.

Quinto, star of Heroes and the Star Trek-reboot, is producing and starring in BioPunk, a drama based on the book of the same name. It explores the world of DIY-scientists and garage biohackers.

Standing in front of the crowd, FBI Supervisory Special Agent Ed You pointed out that, unfortunately, Lopez’ and Quinto’s shows will likely continue Hollywood’s long-standing war against science – a disservice to young people worldwide who might consider careers as scientists [1].

That disservice, he said, also presents a great responsibility to the students in the audience. Those students and the iGEM alumni that number in the thousands spread widely around the globe still are, according to Stanford synthetic biologist, Drew Endy, “one in a million. And that isn’t enough.”

Unexpected applications of biotechnology today

A biological material that can absorb uranium.

Plants that generate electricity.

Proteins engineered to respond to sound.

These were a few of the synthetic biology applications created by the nearly 300 teams that traveled to iGEM from as far as South Africa, Pakistan, China and Australia, as well as from universities across the European Union and the United States.

In 2009, I had been told that if I wanted to see the future of biotechnology, I needed to attend iGEM. It’s where kids develop biological solutions that use functioning bits of genetic information (BioBricks) to solve real-world problems. Sometimes those solutions are audacious and function. Often, they do not.

Students learn how to think and work like scientists, and must engage their communities.

Over the summer, my son, Alejandro joined the GenSpace iGEM team. The Brooklyn team would be competing in the overgraduate category as team members ranged in age from high school juniors to grad students.

Since I write about the rapid advance of life science technologies, I was interested in how the young scientists participating in iGEM would tell their stories. I also wondered what storytellers could learn from the competition.

Here are a few of the things that I learned.

Standing on the shoulders of giants.

The term “synthetic biology” is more than a hundred years old, but published pieces discussing the creation of biological circuits date only to 2000. Modern biotechnology is not even fifty years old.  

iGEM is now twelve years old. From the beginning, it has given students the opportunity to leverage all of biotechnology’s history, as well as synthetic biology’s recent history of applying engineering and design principles to biology.

What iGEM doesn’t give is design constraints.[3]

It gives them BioBricks – interchangeable standard biological parts, pieces of DNA, the computer code of life, that have been developed to build biological systems in living cells.

Most of the students working with the BioBricks probably don’t understand the molecular details of those parts – they don’t need to. They understand that the Bricks are like Legos and can be combined, arranged, recombined and rearranged in seemingly infinite ways. That simplifies the process of design and construction.

Many of those standard biological parts were created or characterized by previous iGEM teams. So, each competition can build upon the previous years’ and contribute the new parts they create to the registry that in turn will be used by future teams.

For example, Team Peking, the 2016 team behind the new biomaterial designed to absorb uranium, constructed a library of parts that they submitted to the BioBricks Foundation. They also offered experimental materials to other Chinese teams.

This is the way that science is practiced in the real world:

Science as a collaborative sport.

Over and over again, iGEM teams referenced the parts they used, as well as the other teams they asked for advice and advised.

Collaboration is considered an essential skill in the 21st century as it promotes the type of deep learning needed to identify and promote complex problems. Nearly every team I saw on stage was gender diverse and depended on older mentors.

For example, the  team from Brooklyn’s community lab Genspace consisted of high school, college, and graduate students. They were mentored by a biotech entrepreneur, a microbiologist, and biologist. There were 11 people onstage, plus their mentor in a tardigrade costume.

As part of the competition, all teams were questioned by a panel of judges comprising experienced academics and professionals. The questions asked were often difficult for the teams to answer. If the team pushed up against the limits of biosafety, the judges asked how risks were minimized.

Many teams also faced the additional challenge of having English as a second language. I watched teams struggle, passing the microphone, as they discussed the answer among themselves, until one team member felt confident enough to address the judges.

Sharing information dispels myths

One of the many teams from Mexico pointed out that 65% of Mexicans believe in magic.

(If you think that’s odd, remember that mistrust of science runs deep in the U.S. and has resulted in a surge of anti-vaccine sentiment and a government that wants to shut down most basic research-funding institutions. In the European Union, fears of genetic engineering have resulted in stringent controls on the use and growth of genetically modified crops, which have in turn prevented their adoption in many African countries where such crops could help feed a hungry population.)

To participate in the competition, iGEM teams are required to engage their local community in Human Practices: the study of how your work affects the world and the world affects your work.

Team Peshawar, the first ever iGEM team from Pakistan, traveled across their country visiting schools and college, running a roadshow to engage and educate as many people as they could about synthetic biology. They developed BioBrick trading cards for younger children and were featured on national television, in national newspapers, and on one international biotech web site.

The team, like many others, wrote a policy paper for the Pakistani government that contained recommendations for the development of synthetic biology in Pakistan, as well as its impact on science and education and the economy.

As a storyteller, I found this one of the most important parts of being in iGEM – you’re telling non-scientists about an important field that is rapidly growing and is quickly impacting all of our lives.

In his book Regenesis, Harvard genetics professor George Church wrote of iGEM,

“Some of the world’s most imaginative, significant, and potentially even the most powerful biological structures and devices [are] now coming not from biotech firms or from giant pharmaceutical companies, but from the ranks of university, college, and even secondary school students who were doing it mainly in the spirit of advanced educational recreation.”

When Professor Church visited iGEM this year, he was mobbed by students, following around like a rockstar. iGEMers have heroes, and those heroes are real scientists.

Let’s hope Lopez and Quinto follow iGEM’s lead by showing scientists are not crazy loners inspired to destroy world, but real people solving real problems by sharing information, collaborating, and dispelling myths.


This post is a chapter from a book I’m co-authoring. If you’re interested visit, What’s Your Bio Strategy? and sign up for the newsletter.

[1] . Especially considering STEM jobs are growing three-times faster and pay 26 percent more than non-STEM jobs [U.S. Department of Commerce].

[2] My high school senior was on the GenSpace. They took the Overgraduate Award for measurement.

[3] The BioDesign Challenge, started this past year, offers art and design students the opportunity to envision future applications of biology. While the entries in the first year’s competition were more abstract than those at iGEM, students again, are not constrained by convention and could let their imaginations run wild.

[Thanks to Erum Azeez-Khan, Nat Connors, John Cumbers, Kristin Ellis, John Garrison, and Susan Rensberger for reading early drafts of this.]


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