iGEM Toronto was fortunate to partner with the Rathenau Instituut and received a generous grant of 5000€ on behalf of Synenergene. As part of the collaboration, our team has been consulting with Zoe Robaey and Dr. Todd Kuiken on how to design our project most effectively. One of Synenergene themes for 2016 was “The Fight Against Mosquito-Borne Diseases”.

Our Policy and Practices team was interested in the correlation between artisanal and small-scale gold mining and malaria prevalence in developing countries. Since artisanal miners make up 20-25% of the gold mining industry, The Policy & Practices Team wanted to emphasize the diagnostic advantages of both our gold biosensor and malaria rapid-diagnostic testing. Our project focuses on co-opting these two technologies in hopes of a dually efficient product to accurately detect for gold and malaria.

Application Scenario

As per Synenergene guidelines, our team focused heavily on designing how the biosensor would serve the market and critically exploring its implementation. In the first few months of conception, our team performed functional decomposition activities and brainstormed best ways of delivering a product combining our biosensor and a malaria RDT Package.

When forming our preliminary design, we aimed at creating individual kits that would consist of the gold biosensor mounted at the top. Artisanal miners would apply their soil sample and be able to view the concentration of gold ions present in real time using the smartphone app (See Figure 1). After deciding that an individual kit would not work, our team was very keen on creating a physical 3D model as part of the implementation of our design.The team decided to call this design the “Lab on Wheels,” and it would include a fully functional lab inside of a large truck capable of driving out to areas with working artisanal miners and taking and developing/processing their samples with the biosensor paper (See Figure 2).

After determining that we need to take the design at a broader level, we decided to come up with a model focusing on social infrastructure.Our implementation framework is based on an incentive model whereby both parties are motivated through self-interest to generate lasting change. The process is outlined in detail in our White Paper.

Techno-moral Scenario

Our techno-moral scenario is a creative piece consisting of Diary Entries of an artisanal miner in Kenya who discovers the gold biosensor through conversations overheard by a nearby mining company.

Techno-moral Vignette:

Diary Entries from an Artisanal Miner

Teklezghi Korir is an artisanal miner living in Kenya. Although he is underpaid for the work he performs and the risk it entails he is happy to do so because as an artisanal miner he still manages to support his family of ten. Teklezghi spends long periods of time away from his family at mining sites where he and the other miners use antiquated techniques to search for gold. Unfortunately, Teklezghi is frequently exposed to mosquitos that breed in the small pools of water that are formed due to these outdated practices. As a result, he is at an elevated risk of being exposed to malaria. Fortunately, like most adults living in regions where malaria is common, Teklezghi has developed an immunity to malaria and does not get sick even with the Plasmodium parasite circulating in his blood. Below is a series of first-hand experiences from his life as an artisanal miner:

October 8, 2016

Dear Diary,

After a hard week at the mine, I came home to be with my family but I immediately got the sense that something has gone awry at the home. I just found out that my youngest son, Abel, is running a high fever, is vomiting and shivering since earlier during the week. I suspect that my son is sick with malaria- I thought that I had covered his room with bed nets but I am not sure if he removed them during the day.

October 9, 2016

Dear Diary,

Today I took my son Abel to the local health center where he was diagnosed with malaria. However, we found out it is too late. The health center was extremely understaffed and had very limited resources. By the time Abel had been diagnosed it was too late to treat him. After the health social worker asked him some questions, he concluded that Abel was exposed to the parasite when he was playing with my razor and accidently cut himself. Sadly, he told me, this kind of ordeal is not out of the ordinary in Kenya where thousands of children die each year from malaria.

October 27, 2016

Dear Diary,

Today I heard a conversation between big mining businessmen about this genetically engineered biosensor paper. I could not hear the complete conversation because I had to make sure they didn’t see me mining near their site. If I am able to get my hands on this paper, I think can help me and my friends detect gold and earn more money. Then I might be able to pay the doctor to help my son Abel get better.

October 30, 2016

Dear Diary,

Today, I was mining near my usual site and listening to more conversations about this paper. I was scared to death when the big mining businessmen caught me- however they told me not to run away. I was surprised that they did not punish me; they knew that I had been mining near their sites all along and wanted to offer me and my friends a business deal. They explained a bit more about the gold paper biosensor and they told me they can give it to me. However, they told me that they can only give it to me on the condition that I use another paper that tells me whether or not I am infected with malaria.

November 5, 2016

Dear Diary,

I was a bit skeptical about it but after talking with my wife, I decided to give this agreement and new technology a chance. The worst case scenario would have been that I could know whether or not I have malaria, and whether or not I am digging in the right place. Against my expectations, the gold paper actually made it much easier to figure out where to dig! Right now, I am making more money than I was before in less time. As a result, I able to afford more food for my family and 8 children are able to go to school instead of working at home! I hope to give them a much better life than I had.

The future was looking much brighter for his children and Teklezghi hoped that if they receive an education that they can avoid the punishment of physical labor that he endures on a regular basis. Just as everything looked to be going in a positive direction, Teklezghi niece, Selam, fell ill. Given his experience with Abel, Teklezghi knows that his family does not have much time to treat Selam. Teklezghi convinces the businessmen to allow his niece into the private health clinic, and they finally agreed after giving him a hard time. Teklezghi is frustrated that they have the final say in matters related to his family’s help, but cannot argue because of the prosperity they have earned him. Although they were able to diagnose Selam with malaria the company decided that they were not obligated to treat her as she is not an employee. Teklezghi sister was thankful that Selam was diagnosed in time but was upset that she had to struggle financially to care for her child. Maybe in the future the government will step in and regulate the use of this valuable resource.


Our team member Shivali Barot was able to travel to Baltimore, Maryland to meet parasitologist and the first-user of an RDT, Dr. Clive Shiff. This interview provided us with insight about whether the paper-based biosensor is really environmentally-friendly or sustainable. Her experiences are outlined here.

On September 14, 2016, we conducted an interview with parasitologist Dr. Ian Crandall. His research focuses on development of antimalarials that can inhibit the transmission of the Plasmodium parasite between red blood cells.

It is known that those at an elevated risk of contracting malaria are missionaries, miners, and military. In order to protect themselves, these individuals tend to take antimalarials prophylactically. However, this is usually accompanied by harmful side effects leading these individuals to prematurely stop using these crucial drugs. Also, in regions where malaria is endemic illnesses such as meningitis are misdiagnosed as malaria due to some overlapping symptoms. Development of a good diagnostic test would result in the more appropriate use of antimalarial drugs, wasting fewer resources, and leading to less antimalarial resistance.

Dr. Crandall emphasized that the elimination of malaria is very difficult, yet offered a unique solution to the management of the disease. Most adults in regions where malaria is endemic already have parasites in their blood, however they do not get sick because they have immunity to the parasite. This phenomenon makes it very difficult to design malaria interventions in endemic regions. As such, It would be beneficial for artisanal miners to know the level of parasites in their blood and establishing a treatment plan based on directed therapy. To conclude the discussion, Dr. Crandall offered a key insight on coupling our gold biosensor with a malaria RDT: Instead of using a governmental approach, he proposes that we use an incentive model where we offer our biosensor to artisanal miners on the condition that they give us their results from a malaria test. It is this idea we have explored further as our application scenario for our project.

Dr. Kevin Kain: Director, SAR Laboratories, Sandra Rotman Centre for Global Health, UHN-Toronto General Hospital, Director, Tropical Disease Unit at the UHN-Toronto General Hospital, a Professor of Medicine at the University of Toronto, and holds a Canada Research Chair (Tier I) in Molecular Parasitology

Dr. Kevin Kain is a tropical disease expert specializing in host-parasite interactions. He researches equity in global health and knowledge translation. After hearing about our kit design, a valuable note of feedback was his insight on self-administering RDTs, where he emphasized that people in developing countries generally do not react well to inflicting self-pain (such as pricking their own finger). What is operationally important is to avoid generating bio-hazards by providing end-users the equipment they need for safe protocol such as falcon tubes, adequate waste disposal containers, and gloves.

We also discussed the bottom-up approach to our intervention by using community health clinics to control delivery of the gold biosensor. Dr. Kain talked about the intervention study he led which dealt with administering bed nets in Uganda (cite). When compared to a control group who simply received bed nets, the study group- who received a participatory education video with a cultural component responded significantly better to the intervention. Dr. Kain also offered a helpful insight that we are in need of “a lot of one-dollar things as opposed to one million dollar thing”. Having a grassroots-led assay would offer a pragmatic informational advantage, and by administering it with a community health clinic we could link the problem with an immediate solution.

Synthetic Biology Conversation Café

As part of community outreach, Toronto iGEM Policy & Practices team also hosted a Synthetic Biology Conversation Café in an informal-style but critical conversation café with the theme of "Discover Synthetic Biology: A Conversation on Modern Science". The 2-hour event held at St. Michael's College at the University of Toronto on October 18th, 2016 consisted of two parts:

  1. A panelist series with:

    Dr Bob Logan, Professor Emeritus, Department of Physics

    Dr. Peter Pennefather, Associate Professor and founder of gDial Inc.

    iGEM Cardiff representative Christian Donohue

    iGEM Toronto representative Alexander Sullivan

  2. A circle discussion with event attendees.

We pitched our Policy and Practices project and discussed ways to improve our design and how to account for issues in feasibility and implementation. We also informed the public about the ethical issues of genetic engineering such as CRISPR and Artificial Photosynthesis, as well as provide them with several applications and real-life thought-provoking questions based on the work iGEM does. This event was successful in giving the science community an opportunity to engage with each other in an informal setting for the promotion of science dialogue and education!

iGEM Impact

The objective of this paper is to demonstrate that the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition in synthetic biology has a large social benefit, in terms of education and tangible impacts, and accordingly that barriers to participation should be lowered in the interest of expanding this social benefit. There is a substantial literature on how various aspects of iGEM- problem-based learning, engineering competitions, and undergraduate research- provide academic benefits and/or signal the acquisition of skills to potential employers. There is also some literature on how participation in iGEM specifically teaches important scientific skills and higher-order thinking, generates a passion for science, and occasionally results in scientific publications. Besides reviewing this literature, this paper will demonstrate that the act of publishing scientific research based on an iGEM project indicates a larger educational benefit than participation alone, since publication is often done by finalist and gold medal-winning teams (issues of causality will also be addressed). It will also demonstrate that the number of scientific publications and businesses resulting from an iGEM project is non-trivial, and will demonstrate how businesses resulting from iGEM teams connect to the greater economy.

The paper is organized thusly: Section One is an introduction to iGEM and synthetic biology. Section Two is a review of the literature on the pedagogical benefits of different aspects of iGEM and some literature on iGEM itself. Section Three is an analysis of patterns in the publication of 82 papers based on iGEM projects. Section Four is an analysis of 20 startups affiliated with iGEM teams, either because a former iGEM participant is a co-founder or because the startup is directly based on an iGEM project. Section Five concludes.

The complete document can be found here.

Additionally, the appendix can be found here.