A team of N.C. State graduate students won first place in an international synthetic biology competition for designing a Web-based decision-making tool to help people innovate responsibly.
The International Genetically Engineered Machine competition, or the iGEM Jamboree, engages hundreds of student teams from all over the world every summer to tackle some of the toughest problems happening in synthetic biology. The competition focuses on the design and construction of new biological parts, devices and systems. This year, 245 teams competed in categories ranging from entrepreneurship to manufacturing.
The Center partnered with Glowing Plant in San Francisco. One of the co-founders, Antony Evans, is served as an advisor to our iGEM team. The team itself, which is based in Raleigh, North Carolina, considered the social, cultural and ecological consequences of the glowing plant and other genetically engineered plants. NC State instructors include Co-Director, Dr. Jennifer Kuzma and Center Faculty Research Fellow Dr. David Berube.
Using the glowing plant as a case study, the team provided a guide to help the DIY bio community (and potentially others) act responsibly with regard to GM plants. The primary goal of the research was to produce a helpful resource for DIY GE plant researcher as well as other people creating innovations in genetically engineered plants. The team also has a wiki page
The Ph.D. students – drawn from communication, genetics, entomology, public administration, public policy, computer science and conservation biology – won for developing the best policy and practices project at the annual iGem competition in Boston.
Our iGEM Team
- Jennifer Baltzegr
- Johanna Elsensohn
- Sheron N. King
- Christina Ndoh
- Emily Nwakpuda
- Elizabeth Pitts
- Jayce Sudweeks
- Rene Xavier Valdez
- Sophia Webster
Team member Elizabeth Pitts sat down to talk a little bit about the competition, her team’s win and what it hopes to take away from the competition.
Q: What was the iGEM competition like?
A: “It’s really interesting and has been happening for more than 10 years now. It’s inviting mostly undergraduates but now it’s expanding to include graduates and commute people like community labs and even high school students. Everybody is excited about synthetic biology which some people call it genetic engineering 2.0 but other people are suggesting it’s own thing because it’s not fully defined yet. Basically, they’re trying to take a standardized approach to manipulate the DNA of living organisms. So, in that sense, it’s very similar to genetic engineering. But the whole thing of iGEM is that they’re trying to create a database of bricks which are little sequences of DNA that you could use repeatedly. So it’s a group effort of trying to further the field of synthetic biology.”
“Obviously most of this is science and I study communication so I don’t do any of that. The important part of iGEM to me is that since they’ve started they’ve included some sort of element of the competition that asks these young scientists to think about social and cultural issues as well as their science project. They used to call it ‘science practices’ and now it’s called ‘policy and practices’ For this year, for the first time, if you wanted to get a gold medal you had to include some kind of component of it in your project. They also launched a whole division devoted to this which is what we competed in.”
Q: Could you tell me a little about the project?
A: “We were all looking at the social aspect. Our core question was ‘What does it mean to be responsible in respect to emerging technologies?’ which is a real tricky question because you know a lot of people are going to answer that question differently. So we’re not coming in and saying, ‘behave yourself, young biologist’ but instead taking a values mapping approach. So we’re asking people to say, ‘what do you think it means?’ We have a concept map that evolves according to what people say. Ideally this is a visual tool that maps out how and what sorts of values and principles are lots of different people drawing on to answer this question of what it means to be responsible. Then there’s also a little quiz you can take to help you come up with your own score more specifically. It’s not meant to be an instructive thing but more like the quizzes you see in magazines. It would say things like, ‘you seem to really value entrepreneurship and you seem less interested in public acceptance or biodiversity.’ You can measure yourself overtime to see if your values have changed or you could use it in a conversation with someone you disagree a lot with. With the concept map and the little app where you answer these statements it’s like a conversation enabler — it’s pretty simple.”
Q: How did it feel to win the iGEM competition?
A: “I mean it’s a very small division so we didn’t have a lot of competition. Mostly, for me as a social scientists, it’s really interesting just to have these conversations with people. So, that was the part that I got a lot out of.”
Q: What was the impetus for the Glowing Plant project?
A: “To develop this tool we worked with the developers of the Glowing Plant. Which is a kind of controversial product. So, it;s the world’s first and only crowd-funded genetically modified organism. So, like on Kickstarter where you can raise money for all kinds of things, they crowd-funded a glow-in-the-dark little mustard plant that they inserted, they originally were going to use fireflies but I think they might be using jellyfish genes now, to make it a nightlight. It’s because of a loophole in the U.S. regulatory system when they contacted the federal government they were told that ‘we don’t technically have to evaluate this because of the current regulatory system so I guess you’re good to go.’ So they didn’t have a lot of assessment that they had to go through and now suddenly you have a genetically modified organism that they’re shipping seeds to people and you can give your kid, for Christmas, a GMO. There was a lot of controversy when this first happened. On the one-hand they raised way ore money than they were asking for and on the other hand, Kickstarts, as a result of this, will now longer crowd-fund any more genetically modified organisms because they has center anti-GMO activists go against them.”
Q: Did anything strike you as interesting during your work on the project?
A: “So for us, this is a neat case study and the idea that different things means different things to different people.”
“We lead the project but we had this initial thing in our minds. We mapped out the initial principles, we were thinking that if you’ve got a plant like this what does that mean? In different terms, is it an invasive species? Is it going to be toxic? As well as what’s legal? All of those are principles that we included. The developers of the plant talked with us along the way and reviewed the tools. They were like our beta testers. They tried the product before we released it and they talked with us about how to improve it overtime.”
“Part of what’s interesting is that these developers, once they had gotten themselves in this controversy, they contacted Jennifer Kuzma asking for N.C. State’s help because we have this center and because we have people here, professors, that are able to help with that kind of thing. It’s a big compliment and a nice thing, that we have a university that is doing these things. Jennifer worked with Andrew Maynard who’s at the University of Michigan and they suggested and offered the [iGEM] team the opportunity to help them work with this group. It’s a nice way of N.C. State being a resource in this very complicated and controversial world of genetic engineering.”
Q: What do you feel was the most significant findings in doing this project?
A: “We’re still in the really early stages o developing it. It was really interesting, to me, that a lot of these young scientists tended to think of social and cultural issues as totally separated from what it means to do science. You’re encouraged to develop really ambitious projects like modifying single-cell organisms to release in the water that would clean up after an oil spill. That would, if you developed it successfully, would need to go through regulatory hurdles, you’d need to deal with public acceptance issues of anything genetically modified. There are lots of social and cultural things to it. They, so far, tend to think of engaging with people in almost a deficit model. So, it’s like engaging means proselytizing and this isn’t always the most effective way of dealing with differences. That was really interesting to me. I do think the tool could be useful as a teaching tool, though.”
Q: Are you going to continue in this research now that the competition is over?
A: “We’d like to continue working with it and are going to apply for a grant to begin working on the next generation of the tool. Right now the technology is very basic and we need to develop the measurements we use to gage people’s values. We’ve also been invited to write an article in the journal of Responsible Innovation.