Cornell iGEM

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Human Practices

Human Practices

Cornell iGEM Human Practices came into the year with much potential. Over the course of the past spring, summer, and fall we developed significant personal and academic investments in the subjects our team was tackling as a whole.

We set out to create Human Practices components that contributed to and complemented with the work our team was doing, had a meaningful impact on our local and global communities, and were innovative, novel, and educational to future teams. To this end, we did the following: (1) engaged in extensive outreach, (2) learned about the environmental, social, economic, and political issues that shaped the world of the biochemistry we were tackling, (3) launched a new social media platform called Humans and SynBio in collaboration with teams from across the world, (4) put together a survey to understand the constructs underlying opinions about synthetic biology, (5) built a Comprehensive Environmental Assessment, following up on our efforts from previous years, (6) facilitated collaborations within our university to put together a portfolio of possible implementation of our genetically engineered technologies, (7) reached out to other iGEM teams to collect water samples for testing, and (8) considered the bioethical and safety implications of our work at large.

Humans and SynBio

This year we aimed to include a Human Practices component that had a global impact, was adaptable, and served to educate both iGEM teams and the communities in which they operated, enhancing their relationships with each other. To this end, we took inspiration from the popular photoblog Humans of New York, which chronicles the personalities, visages, and life experiences of the people of New York City. HONY, as it’s called, has gained a worldwide following and has spawned numerous spin-off projects, including Humans of Ithaca and Humans of Cornell University. We sought to emulate HONY’s singular style, a mode of social media posting that is informative, striking, and familiar: every picture includes as its point of focus a person or group of people, and is accompanied by a quote from their conversation with the photographer, a piece of text that often highlights some unique quality of the interviewees.
For our project, we built a Facebook page. We produced a document that invited iGEM teams from across the world to contribute posts. This invitation outlines interview protocols, instructions for obtaining permission to post an interview transcript and photo online, and how the project relates to the broader goals shared by the iGEM competition and its constituent teams.

After e-mailing this to all teams whose e-mails were readily available, as well as posting our invitation on the iGEM Facebook group several times this summer, results started to flow in. The submissions weren’t the only memorable element of this outreach - we learned a great deal about how individuals around the world think about and relate to synthetic biology.

We continue to actively solicit and accept submissions for Humans & Synbio. Please contact us through Facebook if you are interested in participating!

SynBio Opinions

We surveyed a sample of our colleagues, peers, and community members (n=166), hoping to understand how individuals’ opinions about environmental issues and about the viability of synthetic biology affected their stated judgement of our synthetic biology application. We disseminated this survey using Facebook, e-mail, and other forms of social media. We also sent out invitations to all the iGEM teams who had their contact e-mails readily available on their websites. Results are summarized and pictured on the corresponding page, accompanied by a sample survey. Of note is the fact that out of the respondents who provided a complete set of responses (n=162), a distinct minority (n=3) indicated that they either disagreed or strongly disagreed (on a 5-point Likert scale) with the use of synthetic biology to implement the following description of our project:
"This year Cornell iGEM will be focused on developing an alternative solution to heavy metal water pollution (i.e. lead, mercury, or nickel). Our hope is to create a water filtration device composed of E. coli that have been genetically engineered to produce metallothioneins - a protein that has a high affinity for binding with heavy metals. In other words, water containing heavy metals will be pumped through the E. coli cells and the heavy metals will be taken out of the water and into the E. coli cells. Our hope is to design our device for point-source filtration, so attaching it to the end of a factory pipe filtering out heavy metal content before it enters the ecosystem. However, there are many other applications for our project."

Environmental Water Samples

Instead of solely analyzing water samples from our area (Fall Creek in Ithaca, NY), we were curious to see how many other areas around the United States had traces of heavy metal contamination. Thus, we sent out a request for other iGEM teams to send us environmental water samples from their areas. We got responses from all across the nation, ranging from California, Utah, Michigan, Indiana, and Connecticut. In return, we analyzed their samples via ICP-AES (Inductively Coupled Plasma Atomic Emission Spectromy) and generated an individual water quality report for each team. Our goal was to develop a better understanding of heavy water contamination in drinking water in the United States, and the analyses returned a surprising variety of heavy metal concentrations in environmental water samples.

Risk Assessment

As engineers not only do we strive to design and create, we must ensure that whatever our product, it is safe for use, production, and marketing. In addition, we analyzed risk for community, the organism, the environment, and industries. In total, we conducted three different approaches to our risk assessment for Lead it Go. The first was developed by Cornell’s Environmental Health & Safety Department, pertaining specifically to work with recombinant organisms and the possible ramifications if they were to be released into the wild. The next, CEA (Comprehensive Environmental Assessment) was developed by the Environmental Protection Agency as a general environmental risk assessment and modified by both the Woodrow Wilson Center and our team for use on our synthetic biology project. Finally, we strived to embody the design principles set forth by the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, to implement synthetic biology for the betterment of humanity. Each approach has its limitations, but all of them have helped to inform our project design, research practices, and considerations for further development of our project.


In addition to doing outreach through our local paper (the Cornell Daily Sun), we collaborated with Elsevier Connect, an online publication platform that has over 70,000 unique viewers per month. We would like to thank Dr. Alison Bert very much for her support and guidance throughout the Elsevier Connect editorial process. Both pieces will be available in the coming month, and will be linked to on our social media pages.