Human Practices/Introduction



What is Human Practices?

A team visiting industry stakeholders

A team speaking with potential users

After iGEM Delegates visiting the United Nations

"Human Practices is the study of how your work affects the world, and how the world affects your work."
— Peter Carr, Director of Judging

Designing a thoughtful iGEM project requires asking which problems synthetic biology can best help solve and exploring the impacts of your work in the world. At iGEM we believe these societal considerations should be made upfront and should be integrated throughout the design and execution of synthetic biology projects.

Through the Human Practices elements of the competition, iGEM teams consider whether their projects are responsible and good for the world. They creatively explore issues relating (but not limited) to the ethics, safety, security, and sustainability of their projects.

These issues are complex and often don’t have simple answers. Teams therefore often work with stakeholders to better understand their needs and use these findings to influence their teams’ decisions. Teams also create opportunities to engage diverse communities in shaping the practice of synthetic biology within and beyond iGEM.

This work has taken many different forms. Teams have conducted environmental impact analyses, created museum exhibits, written intellectual property guides, facilitated "white hat" biosecurity investigations, held forums with legislators, and even performed street theatre. They have consulted and shared their experiences with constituents and policymakers in their individual cities and countries, as well as with international forums such as the United Nations.

Perhaps most importantly, the Human Practices element of an iGEM project is an opportunity for team members to explore the roles they might play in the world beyond the iGEM competition. Many iGEM students, mentors and judges have played significant roles in shaping the ways in which synthetic biology (and science and engineering more broadly) is understood and practiced around the world.

Questions you might consider

  • In what ways might your project benefit society? Which communities may be most interested or most affected by your project? Which communities may be left out or negatively impacted if your project succeeds?
  • How might you get feedback on the viability and desirability of your approach? How will you incorporate this feedback into your project design and execution?
  • How might current regulations apply to your project? Are they sufficient, and if not, how might they be changed?
  • How might your approach compare to alternative solutions to the same or similar problems (including approaches outside of biotechnology)?
  • How might your solution to one problem lead to other problems (e.g. social/political/ecological)? How can you anticipate and address these issues?

Getting Started

  • Watch the Human Practices introductory video on the Hub.
  • Check out exemplary projects from previous years.
  • Learn how to succeed by checking out the medal and award criteria.
  • Explore resources that can help guide your thinking on responsible research and innovation.
  • Learn about the history of Human Practices in synthetic biology and iGEM.
  • Get to know the committee who works to evolve the Human Practices program.

Human Practices topic areas include, but are not limited to:

  • Philosophy
  • Ethics
  • Safety
  • Security
  • Risk Assessment
  • Environmental Impact
  • Public Engagement / Dialogue
  • Product Design
  • Scale-Up and Deployment
  • Public Policy
  • Law and Regulation
  • And more!

Examples of Human Practices Beyond iGEM

Biotechnology plays a powerful role in shaping our understanding of the world and our role within it. The iGEM community is part of a broader global effort to actively chart a wise course for advances in biotechnology. Below are a few examples of Human Practices-related activities.

Gene drive researchers are thinking about how to advance their work in ways that are safe and ethical, including working closely with social scientists. They have established technical standards and practices to improve the safety of laboratory research and are engaging regulators locally and nationally to adapt regulatory approaches.

Initially started as an iGEM project, researchers are developing biosensors to test well water in places like Bangladesh, and have have been working with local communities to understand their needs. As a result, their device has undergone several significant revisions. They are working with regulatory agencies in the US and EU to seek approval.

Groups are examining how synthetic biology relates to international agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Researchers have played roles in gathering and interpreting scientific information related to the United Nations convention, engaging with public stakeholders, and serving on expert advisory groups.

Researchers are working with their counterparts in other countries to co-develop research agendas for biotechnology investment that responds to local needs. This work has helped to identify areas where biotechnology could have an impact, forging new partnerships in research and education.

Synthetic biology companies are considering their roles and responsibilities to society. They have been taking steps to better understand public concerns through engaging with stakeholder, and articulating and reformulating the rationale for their business decisions.

Researchers are collaborating with artists to develop new types of laboratory environments and practices.Their work is encouraging better understanding and articulation of cultural ideas around scientific knowledge and informed critique of the ethical and cultural issues of the manipulation of life.


If you have questions or suggestions please email us at humanpractices AT igem DOT org . We love hearing from teams as they explore synthetic biology as a human practice. Best of luck with your projects!