Karl Schmieder M.S./M.F.A.

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. They must engage their communities. This is an important way to expose kids to the Biotech Century.

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.

Team GenSpace 2016

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. The paper 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.”

Synthetic biology pioneer George Church mobbed at iGEM 2016

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.


[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 team. 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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Who Takes iGEM Seriously?

This past week iGEM startup PvP Biologics closed a $35 million round with Takeda.

Last year, in June 2016, Ginkgo Bioworks raised $100 million. The company was founded by a team that participated in the first iGEM competitions.

The iGEM startup page lists some 19 startups that originated from the competition.

While Christopher VanLang is right that is “an excellent teaching tool but not likely taken seriously by academia,” I believe it’s more important than we realize.

The Origins of iGEM

As outlined in Rob Carlson’s excellent Biology is Technology, the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition grew out of an independent activities project course in synthetic biology at MIT in 2003, which in turn was inspired by a circuit design course taught at MIT in the last-1970s.

It was organized by Tom Knight, a senior scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and an early participate in designing the Internet precursor, ARAPNet, Drew Endy, and Randy Rettberg, an engineer and former exec at Sun Microsystems and Apple, who now serves as president of iGEM.

In 2003, the idea that biology could be engineered was still a radical idea. (For context, 2003 was two years after the dot com bubble of 1996–2001 crashed and two years after 9/11/2001.)

In 2004, the first official competition included students from Boston University, Caltech, MIT, Princeton University and the University of Texas, Austin. The students that participated created the first rudimentary genetic circuits.

Over the years, the student projects have grown increasingly complex.

The competition has grown internationally and the number of participants has grown exponentially (in 2016, there were more than 5,000 participants from around the globe).

Disclaimer: I Am a Long-time iGEM Fan

I had been following iGEM since 2010 when I started looking to synthetic biology as a way of applying Internet business models to biotechnology. I attended my first competition in 2016 as an observer and to accompany my son, a high school senior who was a member of the GenSpace team.

I was lucky enough to speak with teams from across the United States, China, Costa Rica, Germany, Japan and Mexico. I watched presentations from teams solving real problems using biology and demonstrating that biology can solve impossible problems.

In addition, as part of the competition, the teams had to engage with their communities. To me, as a science writer, this is one of the most significant benefits of iGEM: high school and college kids learn about synthetic biology but also help dispel myths associated with biotechnology. (Not to mention every team is contributing to the BioBricks project.)

What’s fascinating is giving kids the tools of engineered biology is that they are able to use their imaginations without the constraints of the science they will likely learn in college. This is an important creative exercise. (The new BioDesign Challenge does something similar with design students. It will be interesting to see how that evolves over time.)

I walked away impressed.

Maybe iGEM isn’t taken seriously by academia, but it is taken very seriously by the kids that participate. At some point someone will write a history of iGEM or follow a team reality-show style. It could make for some very compelling, dramatic storytelling.

If iGEM is a leading indicator of what is possible in synthetic biology, then the future is very bright indeed.

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Captain Underpants, BioBuilder and iGEM: Preparing Kids for the Biotech Century

Posted in biotech in kids books, biotechnology, Influences, Observations, synthetic biology by Karl S. on November 13, 2015


Melvin’s Li’l Scientist Wristwatch had a built-in DNA extractor. Melvin inserted the filthy toenail into his watch and programmed a complete extraction procedure while the Turbo Toilet 2000 chased him back through town…

As Melvin ran screaming, his watch quickly pulverized and sonicated the toenail cells, removed their membrane lipids, proteins and RNA, and purified and isolate a single strand of Mr. Krupp’s DNA.

When Melvin reached his bedroom laboratory, he quickly fed the results into his Mecha-Computer, which identified themetallo-organic, “super-powered” substance and began replicating it in a saline gel solution. The gel percolated slowly as it oozed into a glass beaker.
      – Dav Pilkey, Captain Underpants and the Tyrannical Retaliation of the Turbo Toilet 2000 (2014)

Captain Underpants is not a name generally associated with biotechnology. Yet, this wildly successful (70 million copies sold worldwide) series of children’s novels may be the first exposure many children have to biotech. Probably, it won’t be their last.

Just a few years ago the idea that kids would interact with biotechnology might have been unthinkable: The costs associated with DNA sequencing and synthesis were astronomical and required expensive equipment and years of training. Practicing biotechnology in the classroom was literally out of reach.

However, with decreases in the cost of sequencing and synthesis outpacing Moore’s Law, and biotechnology and synthetic biology breakthroughs making the news nearly every day, it has become feasible to expose children to biotech practices. Indeed, it is essential they are exposed to and understand technologies that will play a fundamental role in solving many of the challenges the world faces today and tomorrow.

In contrast, kids are already being taught computer programming at younger and younger ages. In fact, seven EU countries including Britain, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, Greece and Lithuania have set up computer programming as a stand-along subject in their primary and middle schools. Programming languages such as Scratch teach their users the same skills that professional programmers use in their jobs.

Unfortunately, until now, this type of hands-on engagement has not existed for biotechnology.

This article considers is how and why small children might be given similar opportunities, as well as the impact of doing so.

Teaching Synthetic Biology in Middle and High Schools

For the past decade, it’s become commonplace for high school students in biology and AP Biology course to use gel electrophoresis to separate DNA, RNA and proteins, and to learn how to add new genetic material to bacterial cells.

Nearly all teachers that teach the basics of genetic engineering use the same materials and teach the same set of experiments every year. Though these experiments introduce important laboratory techniques, they present a narrow range of experimental problems. In most cases, the laboratory experience ends when the experiment does and students are learning techniques rather than the inquiry or creativity that makes the practice of science exciting.


Earlier this year, Natalie Kuldell, Rachel Bernstein, Karen Ingram and Kathryn M. Hart published BioBuilder, a book-length series of open-access, modular, hands-on experiments designed to be easy to incorporate into high school classrooms and laboratories.

BioBuilder was developed at MIT in collaboration with award-winning high school teachers from across the country with the goal of teaching the foundational ideas of synthetic biology, as well as key aspects of biological engineering that researchers are using in their labs today. The aim was to enrich the way that biotechnology is being taught to middle and high school children.

Among the experiments that BioBuilder teaches are how to measure variants of an enzyme-generating genetic circuit, modeling “bacterial photography,” and building living systems that produce purple or green pigment.

The book and the experiments have been well received because are they easy to introduce into a typical high school biology curriculum (with little to no expense) and expose students to synthetic biology by teaching both science skills and the engineering-design process in the context of living systems.

High School and College Students Advance the Field at iGEM

Every year starting in 2004, high school, college and graduate students have competed in the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. Student teams are given a kit of Lego-like biological parts from the Registry of Standard Biological Parts, work at their own schools over the summer, and design and build biological systems to solve real-world challenges. They compete in 15 tracks that now include art and design, energy labs, environment, health and medicine, and even policy and practice.

Growth of iGEM participation 2004-2014 (Source: iGEM.org)

Growth of iGEM participation 2004-2014 (Source: iGEM.org)

In its first year, iGEM attracted five teams of students. This year’s Giant Jamboree took over Boston’s Hynes Convention Center, attracting 260 teams of college and high school students from around the world.

In the past, teams have designed a microbe to detect and kill a fungus that has been destroying the world’s banana supply.  The 2015 Grand Prize-winning team from Virgina’s College of William and Mary characterized the variability (or stochasticity) of gene expression for the most commonly used promoters in synthetic biology. Promoter regions of DNA initiate the first step of turning genomic information into proteins.

The most successful teams have even gone on to start companies based on their ideas. Among them, Ginkgo Bioworks, a Boston-based microorganism engineering company, competed in the first iGEM and recently raised nearly $50 million.

In a 2014 New Yorker article on iGEM, co-organizer Randy Rettberg commented,  “We used to say we just needed to educate people about the science… We said that if they understood it, they would accept it… [but] to create an environment where [these] students can live this future, what we really need to do is involve people.”

In a survey undertaken by the Oklahoma State University Department of Agriculture, it was found that as many as 80 percent of Americans support  “mandatory labels on foods containing DNA,” about the same number as support mandatory labelling of FMO foods “produced with genetic engineering.” This fundamental misunderstanding of DNA reflected a general lack of understanding of basic science. Giving children the opportunity to learn about biotechnology sooner can only be a good thing.


[Thanks to Davis Endries, John Garrison, Natalie Kuldell, Taylor Hamman and Danielle Wilde for reading early drafts of this.]