What is iGEM?

The first in a series of posts reflecting on the meaning of iGEM

by Linda Kahl

iGEM 2013 Giant Jamboree - iGEM Foundation and Justin Knight

iGEM 2013 Giant Jamboree - iGEM Foundation and Justin Knight

At some point in time, many of us, if we are mindful, will begin to ask the ‘big’ questions in life – Who am I? Why am I here? What is the meaning of my life?  

When I joined the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Foundation, I found many at iGEM HQ were asking the same questions about iGEM. It makes sense that now would be the time to be asking those questions. After all, iGEM is now 16 years old. In people years, age 16 is a time of adolescence, of transition, of questioning.

 As I began poking about the archives, I soon learned the question “What is iGEM?” is not easy to answer. In fact, iGEM is downright difficult to define because iGEM means so many things to so many people.


For example, some see iGEM as an educational program and training ground for future synthetic biologists:

a worldwide synthetic biology (SynBio) competition where multidisciplinary teams of undergraduate students come together to work on a SynBio project of their own design
— University of Exeter, 2019
a launchpad for more than 40,000 young synthetic biologists around the world
— Twist Bioscience, 2018
the world’s top synthetic biology competition for college and high school students
— Rob Matheson, MIT News Office, 2015
Closing Ceremony at the iGEM 2017 Giant Jamboree - iGEM Foundation and Justin Knight

Closing Ceremony at the iGEM 2017 Giant Jamboree - iGEM Foundation and Justin Knight


While others see iGEM as the birthplace of start-up companies:

iGEM teams are the biotechnology innovators of the future. The list of start-ups that have spiraled out from iGEM is very impressive, with several companies attracting multimillion-dollar investments
— Paul Fremont, co-director of SynbiCITE
the single most influential program that helped me follow my passion for biology. [T]he experience inspired the creation of http://experiment.com
— Cindy Wu, Founder Experiment.com
Whether iGEMers start a company from their project, start a company from their experience, or use their experience to join a young company … iGEM can serve as a catalyst for their future — and the future of the field — whether they’re consciously aware of it or not
— Maxx Chatsko, author at SynBioBeta

And still others see iGEM as an object of study:

a testbed for proactive and adaptive risk management
— McNamara et al. ACS Synth Biol, 2014;3(2):983-5, doi: 10.1021/sb500058e
an interesting space to learn about the further operationalization of the relatively new concept of RRI
— Betton et al. Life Sci Soc Policy, 2018;14(1):21, doi:10.1186/s40504-018-0082-1
The manifestation of [synthetic biology] in iGEM thus makes for an excellent space in which to interrogate the potential contribution of social science to interdisciplinary collaboration and pedagogy and thus to the potential of post-ELSI work in the life sciences.
— Balmer and Bulpin, Biosocieties, 2013;8(3):311-335, doi 10.1057/biosoc.2013.13

Of course, when trying to define something it is sometimes easier to start with what it is not. From my own experience as a former judge and Human Practices committee member, I’ve learned that …

iGEM is not a science fair;
iGEM is not merely a student competition;
and iGEM is definitely not boring!

iGEM from above close up at iGEM 2017 Giant Jamboree - iGEM Foundation and Justin Knight

iGEM from above close up at iGEM 2017 Giant Jamboree - iGEM Foundation and Justin Knight

 Still, the question remains “What is iGEM?” Rather than attempt to answer in a single blog post, I’d like to ask you – the reader of this post –  “What does iGEM mean to you?”

 Perhaps you are an iGEM student or advisor or committee member, or one of the over 40,000 iGEMers that have participated in the iGEM competition over the past 16 years. Or maybe your company spun out of an iGEM project. Or maybe your company has sponsored iGEM teams. Or maybe you are learning about iGEM for the very first time. Regardless, there must be some reason you are interested in iGEM. Your perspective is unique and valuable and I’d love to hear from you!

 Please send your reflections on “What does iGEM mean to you?” to blog@iGEM.org where your responses will be compiled along with the reflections of others and shared in future blog posts. And please keep following or, better yet, contribute your ideas, questions and comments to the iGEM blog!

iGEM BlogLinda Kahl