What is iGEM, and how do I get involved?
By Rebecca Jeong
iGEM is an independent and non-profit foundation that supports community members who want to learn about genetic engineering.
They host an international competition every year called the “Giant Jamboree”, where participants get an opportunity to present their work. As of 2022, this competition has been going on for 19 years!
In 2004, it started off with 5 teams, but as of this year, thousands of students from over 40 countries participate in iGEM communities. Teams include people from different majors and with different skill sets, and together they design projects related to genetic engineering. Genetic engineering (also sometimes called “synthetic biology”) is a multidisciplinary field of research where a synthetic biological system is assembled from small parts of DNA fragments. The applications are many: for example, people can engineer microorganisms to clean pollutants from our water, soil, and air. People can create solutions to problems that are eco-friendly and sustainable.
Who can participate in iGEM?
Each iGEM team works on problems where techniques from genetic engineering could be applied. The iGEM community consists of four kinds of teams:
- high school,
- community lab, and
Therefore, the types of problems they work on will depend on their level of knowledge and interest.
How to get started
Step 1: Find a problem
The first step for every team is to search for a problem where a solution could involve genetic engineering. This problem could either be a local problem, or global problem. Topics that teams select could involve:
- the environment (e.g., how can we help to clean up ocean water in an eco-friendly way?)
- agriculture (e.g., how can we help grow stronger fruit by modifying some of the genes?)
- human health (e.g., how can we help regulate the development of harmful cells?)
- and lots more!
Step 2: Recruit a team
The second step is to recruit team members. There is no upper limit on the number of people on a team, or age restrictions. Also, if it is difficult to recruit team members locally, members of the team can recruit people from other schools, or even other countries!
iGem recommends building a team of 8 to 15 people with different backgrounds, including ethnic, cultural, and gender diversity. One of the tips from iGEM is to build subgroups within a team, to allow distribution of work. They suggest that the role of the members rotate so everyone gets a chance to learn about the different parts of a project, which helps to create a well-rounded team.
Step 3: Find a lab space and order your materials
The third step is to check to see if your school or department has any free lab space. Every iGEM team requires appropriate space for lab benches, equipment, and regular team meetings. Once the team members and lab spaces are set, teams can purchase the appropriate reagents and DNA parts to get their “wet lab” started.
Every year, iGEM sends out free kits with dried DNA parts and plates to registered teams. This helps teams think about building robust systems, rather than focusing on building parts that may have already been created in the past. During the experiment process, it is important to keep track of what has been done in your lab notebook, regardless of the result. Even if a particular experiment wasn’t successful, it is an important part of your learning process! We can often learn just as much from things that didn’t work as things that did work.
Step 4: Work on the project together so you can share it at the Giant Jamboree!
While working on your project, there are other things to focus on beyond just wet lab experiments. These include: molecular modeling, “human practices” (thinking about ethics, and working with communities who may be impacted by the solutions you are creating), website design, and video production.
Depending on the project, sometimes the team requires a modeling component. This includes working on theoretical predictions of what would happen to the bioparts once they are assembled. Theoretical modeling is important because some reactions are not stable enough to be observed, or happen too quickly to be observed.
As genetic engineering involves modifying the part of biological organisms synthetically, it can often bring about ethical and social considerations. Therefore, teams should consider perspectives of other people who might be impacted by their proposed solutions. These considerations should be integrated as a part of the project (iGEM calls this “human practices”).
Each team also needs to document their project with a website and short video clips. All aspects of the project should occur simultaneously so the project can be completed on time — this requires mentorship and good project management skills!
Does this sound like something you would like to get involved in?
If you are a student (or an educator and mentor!) you can find further information on the iGEM website: https://igem.org/