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Participation in iGEM Competition; Education toward Synthetic Biology Innovation | OMICS International
ISSN: 2155-952X
Journal of Biotechnology & Biomaterials

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Participation in iGEM Competition; Education toward Synthetic Biology Innovation

Edgar Andrés Ochoa Cruz and Marie-Anne Van Sluys*

Sao Paulo University USP, Brazil

Corresponding Author:
Marie-Anne Van Sluys
Sao Paulo University USP, Brazil
Tel: 5511954084619

Received date: October 24, 2014; Accepted date: January 30, 2015; Published date: February 06, 2015

Citation: Ochoa Cruz EA, Van Sluys MA (2015) Participation in iGEM Competition; Education toward Synthetic Biology Innovation. J Biotechnol Biomater 5:170. doi:10.4172/2155-952X.1000170

Copyright: © 2015 Ochoa Cruz EA, et al. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

Visit for more related articles at Journal of Biotechnology & Biomaterials


Synthetic biology knowledge has been enhanced around the world through a ´learn by doing´ approach. The iGEM competition is being used as a catalyst to get students involved in molecular biology, mathematics, and physics multidisciplinary research and application. This groundbreaking method has reached its 10th anniversary and is going viral through the academic community. This strategy is transforming science by encouraging creative ideas and innovation in academic research, which could be a major advantage for South America technological development.


Synthetic biology; iGEM; Education; Biotechnology


The iGEM competition (International Genetically Engineered Machines), was created in 2004 by the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), it celebrated its 10th anniversary last October. It already counts with 1,243 collegiate teams from universities from all around the world [1-3]. The competition, which resembles the robots student-oriented engineering competitions, uses biological platforms (bacteria, yeast, plants, among others) to develop solutions/products to our over-growing society’s problems through synthetic biology. The students that participate in the competition learn basic principles of molecular engineering improving their education by resolving worldwide problems. Even more exciting is to see the projects that this community of motivated students was able to develop along the last 10 years, some teams developed more than one project per year and most of them deal with “real world” applications (Table 1). The iGEM has encouraged, all around the world, the student’s protagonist in the design and standardization of biological material as a new source of manufacture that can be applied in several fields. The project’s distribution during iGEM 2013 was the following: health and medicine (40 related projects), environment (36 related projects), food and energy (25 related projects), manufacturing (13 related projects), information processing (12 related projects), software (8 related projects), entrepreneurship (4 related projects), foundational advance (29 related projects) and new application (24 related projects) [1]. The iGEM features enhance the participant’s skills in key biotechnological project creation phases; brainstorm and problems/solutionsidentification, planning and design of genetic circuits, development and debugging of the biological functions/applications, sometimes even technology scaling [1].

Year Environment Food or Energy Health and Medicine Manufacturing New application Number of teams
2004         Photographic bacteria UT Austin Team 5
2005         Caltech Team 13
2006 Arsenic biosensor Edinburgh Team Tissue generation in mammalian Princeton Team 32
2007 Self-powering electrochemical biosensor Glasgow Team Butanol production using bacteria Alberta Team A synthetic biology approach against HIV Ljubljana Team Extensible logic circuit in bacteria USTC Team 54
2008 Electrical reporting system to detect toxins in water Brown Team Bacterial biosensors with electrical output Harvard Team mmunobricks against lielcvbacter pylon' Slovenia Team Biofabricator using Bacillus sublilis Imperial College Team Engineer epigenetic control of gene expression USTC Team 84
2009 E. Chromi, a kit for biosensors construction Cambridge Team Ethanol production through whey metabolization UNIPV-Pavia Team lmmuni-T. coil, a probiotic approach to diagnosing and treating inflammatory bowel disease Standford Team The E.ncapsulator, a drug production and delivery platform Imperial College Team Lighting Cell Display Valencia Team 112
2010 Heavy metal bioreporter and bioabsorbentPekin Team agrEcoli, detects and signals the presence of nitrates BCCS-Bristol Team AAV 'virus construction kit', gene delivery using viral vectors Freiburg Bioware Team Controlling the production of an organized biostructure MIT team Platform of DNA-guided scaffold to arrange various functional protein domains Slovenia Team 130
2011  A Biosensor for Naphthenic Acids Calgary Team Make It or Break It, diesel production and gluten destruction Washington Team Tissue self-construction to achieve specific patterns of cell differentiation MIT Team Cell-free method to produce complex biomolecules Cornell Team Synthetic biology tools for space exploration Brown-Stanford Team 165
2012 bWARE, mechanisms of biosafety in synthetic biology Paris Bettencourt Team Food Warden, system that detects meat spoilage Groningen Team Bistable toggle switch for mammalian cells Slovenia Team Arachnicoli, spider silk production in E ea Utah State Team Arachnicoli, spider silk production in E ea Utah State Team Beadzillus, biobricks collection from B.  subtilis LMU-Munich Team 190
2013 Physco Filter, transgenic moss capable of reducing contamination TU Munich Team FerryTALES, biosensor identify cattle that excrete 5.619i/ 0157:H7 Calgary Team Cardiobiotics, prevent cardiovascular disease by reducing the metabolism of dietary L-carnitine UIUC Illinois Team Plasticity, bioplasticproduction from mixed waste Imperial College Team WormBoys, first artificial synthetic symbiosis with bacteria engineered to ride on worms Valencia Biocampus Team 215

Table 1: Selection of representative applied projects along the 9 years iGEM competition [data extracted from 1,2].

This knowledge will be “game changer” for the future of the biotechnology industry. The open source community around iGEM has a worldwide impact. Nevertheless, the South American participation (5.3%) along these 10 years is small when compared to the North American (38.6%), the European (28.3%) and the Asian (27.8%). Africa has only participated twice while Asia has presented a fast growth in the number of teams at the competition (Figure 1).


Figure 1: Number of iGEM teams per region each year [data extracted from 1,2,3].

Most of biotechnology companies in the South America region focus in the sales sector, not in the research and development area, except for companies/organizations such as Amyris (Biofuel), EMBRAPA (Brazilian Corporation of Agricultural Research, focus on biofuel and crops), Braskem (chemistry), CTC (Sugarcane Research Center, focus on biofuels) and the IAC (Agronomical Institute of Campinas, focus on sugar biorefineries). The knowledge and courage to change this scenario of a new generation of South American scientist/inventors could come from the experience learned from the iGEM. South America biotechnology currently is focused on the biofuels (Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Colombia), genetically modified crops (Argentina) and vaccines (Brazil and Cuba). Still, there are plenty other areas in the modern biotechnology scenario with a lack of investment, development and human resources. Brazil has few big biotechnology companies when compared to industrialized countries; most of them work with biofuels and related chemistry. Among small companies, a more diverse scenario is reported, FAPESP (São Paulo Research Foundation) has granted 3,146 grants and fellowships among different fields from health and chemistry to agriculture [4]. Brazil as a case study, which has the 7th biggest GDP (Gross domestic product) in the world and the first in Latin America [5], shows that this region has the capacity/necessity of technological expansion. Unfortunately, translating academic research and spin-offs to market applications has been limited [6]. Nevertheless, the conditions to improve this rate are emerging. Brazil published 49,819 scientific publications in 2011, which counts for the 54.7% of the Latin-American production and 2.26% of the world production [7], it also educated 8,430 PhDs in 2010 [8]. Brazil invested 1.16% of GDP in science and technology in 2010, while the United States, one of the leaders in technology, invested 2.83% in the same period [9]. It also produced 33,395 patents in 2012 [10]. Characteristics that are important, however, remain ineffective without “real world” market application of the generated knowledge in solving the regional problems. The newborn synthetic biology industry could find a fertile environment in Brazil, a country that has the characteristics to emerge in the field. Also, it could use the experience that the students have learned from the iGEM. The year 2014 was the fifth Brazilian participation in the iGEM competition. The two first participators, 2009 ( and 2011 (, were from the UNICAMP University with a single team each year. In 2012 a single team conformed by two Brazilian universities, USP-UNESP ( participated. The 2012 team made an effort to promote synthetic biology among the students and the academic community, helping to expand the number of participants in 2013. That year for the first time Brazil had three teams participating from different corners of the country: Amazonas, São Paulo and Minas Gerais [10]. The 2014 competition had these same three regions participating plus a new team from Recife. As Brazil, the South American countries are also expanding their participation in iGEM. Nevertheless, we need to enhance politics and educational incentives to participate in this type of events and cultivate the “learn by doing” culture in our next generation of scientists, hoping to boost the impact of these initiatives in Latin American biotechnology industry.


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