What is iGEM?

Sonal Panse

International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) is an international Synthetic Biology design competition for undergraduate student teams from accredited educational institutions. Organized by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, Massachusetts, iGEM aims to foster an interest in Synthetic Biology and introduce students from an international arena to the fundamental concepts of biology and engineering. Students are given the opportunity to develop independent learning skills and carry out innovative research in genetic component technology.

The International Genetically Engineered Machines competition is organized by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The International Genetically Engineered Machines competition is organized by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Originally a month-long design course conducted during the Independent Activities Period at MIT in January 2003, iGEM became a summer competition the following year with teams from five schools competing. In 2005, the competition was officially named iGEM, exchanged its classroom-oriented format for an independent research-oriented one, and had 13 participants from four countries. 37 teams participated in 2006, and the number of worldwide participants has since increased.

To accommodate everyone, the MIT international competition has two schedules. Schools with a summer break in June, July and August can participate in the Early Summer competition. There is a Late Summer schedule for schools with a summer break in July, August and September.

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Participating teams can have any number of members, but a one-membered team is disallowed and the norm is usually up to 12 students. The members can be from the same school or from different schools. A single school can sponsor multiple teams.

Undergraduate students can be from different disciplines; Ph.D students are allowed on the team only in a mentoring capacity. Each team requires at least two advisers and one of these has to be a faculty member from the school sponsoring the team. Advisers provide technical and educational guidance, help arrange lab space and project funding, and maintain official contact with the iGEM headquarters.

Team recruitment and project research usually begins at the start of the year, but registration, submission of team project proposal, and payment of registration and Jamboree attendance fees takes place in May. The Registry of Standard Biological Parts at MIT then sends each team a genetic toolkit. This consists of DNA and genes that follow a standard called BioBrick™ and can be assembled to build new biological systems.

Students are encouraged to be as creative as possible and can undertake more than one project. They are required to document their team information, project choice, list of genetic parts used, and work process in detail on the iGEM wiki. Correct attribution is necessary to distinguish work done by the team and the role played by advisers and outside labs.

Final projects are submitted by mid-October. In November, at the annual Jamboree, each team makes a 20 minute presentation of their project before a panel of judges. There are an assortment of prizes in various categories and a grand BioBrick™ trophy for the winning team.

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