iGEM teams follow a high standard of safe and responsible biological engineering. Because you are members of the synthetic biology community, you are responsible for living up to the trust placed in you to design, build, and share biological devices safely.
Safe Project Design
Be a responsible engineer! Think carefully about what would happen if you completely "finished" your project, and turned it into a product that real people use. What effects might it have in the real world? Here are some questions to get you started:
- Who will use your product? What opinions do these people have about your project?
- Where will your product be used? On a farm, in a factory, inside human bodies, in the ocean?
- If your product is successful, who will receive benefits and who will be harmed?
- What happens when it's all used up? Will it be sterilized, discarded, or recycled?
- Is it safer, cheaper, or better than other technologies that do the same thing?
Consider these questions, and consider how you might modify your project design in response to these real-world issues. Even if you cannot think of a good modification, you can discuss the problem with others, and propose future experiments to find a good solution.
Safe Lab Work
All biological lab work, even simple experiments, carries some risk to the experimenter. To reduce these risks, iGEM teams should work in properly equipped facilities and use standard lab safety techniques. Teams should also consider the organisms and parts they will work with, and what hazards are associated with these organisms/parts by themselves or in combination. We encourage iGEM teams to pursue ambitious projects and to reduce risks by using safer substitutes for more dangerous organisms/parts.
iGEM's Lab Safety Rules
- High school teams can only conduct work with Risk Group 1 organisms, and conduct research in a Safety Level 1 laboratory
- Teams cannot conduct work with Risk Group 3 or 4 organisms
- Teams cannot conduct research in a Safety Level 3 or 4 laboratory
- Teams must follow safe shipment guidelines when submitting samples
- Teams cannot release or deploy their project outside of the laboratory at any time during the competition or at the Giant Jamboree
- Teams must follow all biosafety rules of their institution and all biosafety laws of their country
- If you conduct any experiment with human subjects (including non-invasive experiments, such as surveys), you must comply with all rules of your institution/country that govern experiments with human subjects.
Working Safely with Parts
When you work with biological parts, you must consider the function of each part to determine whether and how you can handle it safely. We encourage iGEM teams to avoid the use of dangerous parts and to seek safer alternatives.
If you are unsure about a part, consult your team instructors or your institutional biosafety officers. You can also email safety AT igem DOT org for advice!
The iGEM Safety Committee puts Safety Red Flags on certain parts in the Registry, which present safety risks beyond what is normal for the Registry. Be extra careful when handling these parts, and consult with your team instructors to determine if you need any additional safety precautions. Any part with a Red Flag requires a Check-In before you acquire or use that part.
Is your part toxic to humans? It could encode a protein that is toxic by itself (like Botulinum toxin, a.k.a. Botox), or perhaps it is an enzyme that synthesizes a toxic small molecule.
Parts in Combination and Context
Even if the individual parts in your project are safe, they may have a dangerous function when combined. You must think about how your parts will work together. Could they imitate the function of a virulence factor? Could they be harmful to humans or the environment in some other way?
Virulence factors are genes that give microbes certain capabilities to infect or sicken people. Although these capabilities can be useful in synthetic biology, they also make microbes more dangerous. For example:
- Proteins that enable bacteria to attach to the outside of human cells
- Proteins that enable bacteria to invade human cells
- Cell-exterior proteins or carbohydrates that protect bacteria from the immune system
Visit Virulence Factors of Pathogenic Bacteria to learn more.
Working Safely with Organisms
Microorganisms are generally classified into four Risk Groups, according to how dangerous they are to humans. The majority of iGEM teams use Risk Group 1 organisms, such as yeast or E. coli K-12. A few teams use Risk Group 2 organisms, such as human cell lines. iGEM teams are not permitted to use Risk Group 3 or 4 organisms, or to work in Safety Level 3 or 4 laboratories.
Appropriate safety precautions depend on the Risk Group of the organisms you work with. Choose an appropriate lab facility and use the correct protective equipment for the organisms you use in your project.
Read the page about Risk Groups and Safety Levels for more detail, including how to find out which Risk Group an organism is in.
General Lab Safety Manuals
- Synthetic Biology: A Lab Manual by Liljeruhm, Gullberg, and Forster: general guide to laboratory work in synthetic biology, with a chapter on basic safety practices. Purchase on Amazon
- WHO Biosafety Manual: PDF format, in several languages (English, Français, Español, Português, 中文, Русский, Italiano, 日本語, Српски / srpski, Tiếng Việt)
- Biosafety in Microbial and Biomedical Laboratories (BMBL): a comprehensive guide to laboratory safety, published by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Laboratories also have physical and chemical hazards, such as:
- Sharp objects & broken glass
- Extreme cold temperatures (e.g. liquid nitrogen)
- Acids and corrosive chemicals
- Toxins (e.g. acrylamide)
Follow your institution's rules about how to work safely with these hazards.
Protect your part submissions from delays and blockages!
iGEM teams and the Registry frequently exchange samples of DNA through the mail. Although these shipments are generally not dangerous, they are still governed by national and international laws. iGEM teams should learn how to ship DNA samples safely and legally, and learn which samples should not be shipped.
Why are there laws about shipping DNA?
Countries regulate the shipment of DNA across their national borders in order to keep dangerous genetic material under control. This is both to prevent people accidentally being harmed (by a spill or lab accident), and to prevent malicious actors from obtaining dangerous materials.
The vast majority of DNA that is sent and received by iGEM teams poses no risks and is perfectly safe for shipment. However, it is worthwhile to understand the rules and best practices around shipping DNA, both so that your routine safe shipments are less likely to be delayed by customs, and so that you can respond appropriately if you ever do want to ship something potentially dangerous.
Genes to Avoid Shipping
Different countries have different laws about what DNA cannot be shipped across national/state borders. If you are unsure, you should consult the biosafety office of your institution.
As a starting point, you can consult the Australia Group List and the U.S. Select Agents and Toxins List. If any of your parts come from organisms on the Australia Group List or the Select Agents and Toxins list, please contact iGEM (email safety AT igem DOT org) to discuss whether you should refrain from submitting these parts to the Registry.
Packaging and Customs
When you submit parts for the 2016 competition, use the standard DNA Submission Kit that comes with your 2016 Distribution, and follow the directions on the Registry.
Do not attempt to disguise the nature of your shipment. Disguised shipments will not be accepted by iGEM HQ, and any parts that arrive in a disguised shipment will not be eligible for awards. Disguised shipments include:
- Dishonest or misleading labeling on the outside of the package
- Dishonest or misleading customs declarations
- DNA samples hidden inside "non-scientific looking" materials, like books or clothing
If you anticipate having problems with your shipment getting through customs, prepare and send your shipment well ahead of time. We also recommend preparing your samples as dried DNA rather than liquid.
Here are some good general guidelines for shipping non-hazardous biological materials from the University of Edinburgh.