Synthetic biology standards in the iGEM community and vice versa

November begins with the 2019 iGEM Jamboree in Boston, so let’s take a minute to consider the critical role that synthetic biology standards has played in the iGEM community and vice versa. The International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition began in 2003 and rapidly grew from a few schools to a massive international event. One of the keys to its growth has been an embrace of standardization: iGEM embraced and popularized the “BioBrick” assembly standard, building up a registry of parts compatible for assembly with one another and requiring every participating team to “give back” by contributing its own new parts—now supporting not just BioBricks but a number of successor standards as well.

iGEM presents a unique and challenging environment for standards development and testing. Teams come from a wide variety of backgrounds, often with little prior experience in synthetic biology. Many teams have little funding and also do not have access to high-end laboratory equipment. Even sending material from iGEM headquarters is challenging, as materials need to be extremely inexpensive (~$1 US per kit) and resilient to shipping with long delays and no temperature control. Finally, iGEM operates at a large organizational scale, with several hundred teams per year. At the same time, teams are often highly creative, enthusiastic, and willing to embrace new technologies. All of this together makes iGEM an excellent and challenging testbed for new technologies.

Indeed, for the past several years, iGEM has also been leading research in reproducibility and standards for measurement. From 2014 to 2018, the iGEM Measurement Committee ran a series of interlaboratory studies progressing from diagnosis of reproducibility challenges to development and refinement of low-cost and highly resilience methods for calibration of fluorescence and optical density measurements.  Thousands of iGEMers participated in these studies (including many supervised by members of the BioRoboost project), and have become co-authors of scientific papers establishing and disseminating these methods.

Now, iGEM is continuing to build on these results, working both on additional protocols and on curation problems related to data validation and sharing. The Measurement Committee is also looking for more members and collaborators, both to bring new standards and technologies to iGEM and to help disseminate the ones that have been developed there.

Text by: Jake Beal (BBN Technologies, IOWA), November 2019

Leave a Comment