Team:Oxford/policy and practices


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Policy & Practices

In the emerging field of synthetic biology, iGEM is growing as a source of ambitious and imaginative ideas which have the potential to offer great benefits to human society and our environment. The number of successful iGEM start-ups clearly demonstrates that the competition gives teams the opportunity to get involved in much more than just a summer project; students have the chance to come up with a solution which has a positive impact in the real world.
In fact, many projects are conceived in the hope of doing just this, often with a specific unresolved social problem in mind. iGEM draws inspiration from the world and the challenges it faces, and contributes back potential solutions.

Our work with the Environment Agency, which inspired us to explore bioremediation as an option for dealing with the pressing environmental concern cause by chlorinated solvent pollution, brought home just how great an impact our own project might have on this issue. Chlorinated solvents are indispensable to many manufacturing, professional, and even everyday household activities, yet no environmentally acceptable method of disposal currently exists. Our research has led us to believe that bioremediation is a genuinely viable option for addressing this challenge, a position which the Environment Agency has supported. We realized that what began as an iGEM project may well be worth developing further than the months we had available to complete the competition.

With this in mind, for the policy and practices element of our project we decided to ask…


For the policy and practices element of the competition, our team has researched how iGEM projects grow from ideas into real world solutions. What are the challenges facing teams who want to develop their projects beyond the jamboree? What can be done to help them realise the potential benefits of their ideas for society? And what should we be aiming to achieve by all this?

Because the subject of our policy and practices research was driven by the desire of our scientists to understand how to make the project successful beyond the bench, the whole of our team took a keen interest in Policy and Practices developments, and our findings influenced almost every aspect of the science project. For example, in making our own decisions about intellectual property we used the framework developed as part of our IP policy advice for iGEM teams. Our research into public attitudes and safety concerns also influenced the design of our prototype DCMation system.

Under the broad heading of our overall question - how a project can make an impact on the 'real' world beyond the lab - our team identified what we believe are the key considerations for teams to take into account.

Problem Solving….
Is there a real need or demand (including a demand to satisfy intellectual curiosity or interest!) for the project? Many teams are inspired by their search for a synbio solution to a problem or challenge faced by the world. For our team, the need for a way of address the environmental problems caused by chlorinated solvents was clear.
Click here to find out more...

How can the idea be implemented and delivered in the real world? Our engineers used design software and 3D printing to think about how we might realise DCMation and the environments in which the biosensor and bioremediation technique might be used. Cost was an important fact as this will affect the accessibility of synthetic biology in parts of the world where environmental solutions are often most needed.
We also put a great deal of thought into how our project can be made safe, both to users and to the environment.

Intellectual Property….
How does ownership of intellectual property affect the ability of a team to develop their ideas beyond the jamboree? Our report looks at how the iGEM community can navigate this controversial and difficult issue, and the implications of intellectual property policy for product development, and for shaping the future of the iGEM competition and by extension the field of synthetic biology as a whole...

As we quickly discovered working in such an interdisciplinary team, effective communication between disciplines is is essential to the development of any synthetic biology project. We have explored how the communication methods we found useful within our interdisciplinary team could be useful to share ideas with those outside the field of synbio...

Public Participation….
It's not possible to overestimate the importance of community participation in making synthetic biology a socially-accepted environmental solution. Using a novel approach, we used surveys and focus groups to compare the attitudes of members of the public with lay knowledge with those who had been briefed on synthetic biology, hoping to understand the root of any concerns about the field. We have been involved in a vast range of presentation and outreach events in an effort to excite the general public about the possibilities of synbio and to work together to address legitimate concerns...

The iGEM Competition….
Of course, none of this would be possible without the iGEM competition itself, which has been steadily expanding since its beginnings in 2004 and has grown from 5 to over 200 teams in the last 10 years. As the first ever Oxford team, we are more than a little late to the party! Our team has researched the growing contribution made by the rest of Europe to the competition, of which we hope to become a part from 2014 onwards...

Our Policy and Practices Advance
Our policy and practices research was directly inspired by our work with the environment agency which made it clear to our team that bioremediation of chlorinated solvents had great potential not only as an iGEM project, but also as a practical solution to the very real environmental problem caused by chlorinated solvent pollution. Our team wanted to understand how to use the iGEM competition to create a positive impact in this area: so, rather than research one specific area, we took their question - How can an iGEM project change the world? - and decided to explore all the different facets of this, as can be seen above. Many of the factors we identified, particularly Intellectual Property which formed the largest and the most interesting aspect of our work, apply equally to the field of synthetic biology as a whole.


Being inspired by the scientific research itself, many areas of our human practices research fed directly back into the science, particularly in the areas of realisation, safety, and communication. Our approach of asking a general question allowed us to explore many facets of the iGEM competition and its place in the field of synthetic biology - from environmental, to social, to legal, to economic concerns, amongst many others. Though our method was challenging as it required such a wide range of research methods, from surveys and focus groups to legal research and presentations, this variety also made our work highly rewarding as we were able to gain a much fuller perspective on the factors which influence success of iGEM - and other synthetic biology - projects.
We hope that by asking similarly broad questions, teams avoid being blinkered by one particular issue and are able to see their project in the perspective of the 'bigger picture', and therefore understand the relevance of policy and practices issues to the future of synthetic biology.

[1] Shaun Rowson BA (Hons) MSc CIWEM CWEM (Team Leader - Groundwater & Contaminated Land,Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire), by personal communication.