Synthetic Biology and Genetic Engineering for Human Health and Society (2023-2024)


Rapid advances in synthetic and systems biology, metabolic and enzyme engineering, and nanotechnology are having profound impacts on biotechnology and related engineering fields. A formerly expensive, highly specialized discipline, it is now the focus of an annual competition for high schools and university students who freely explore synthetic biology in hands-on, collaborative and authentic research experiences.

The Duke International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) team was founded to stimulate and nurture students’ passions in science and engineering with a focus on synthetic biology and biotechnology exploration, in order to prepare them as future leaders, innovators and researchers in these emerging fields. Students participate in all aspects of the engineering cycle, including designing, building, testing and learning for a research project that will advance health outcomes using novel synthetic biology tools. In addition, iGEM compels its student researchers to analyze the human and ethical practices of their research.

Project Description

The Duke iGEM team will develop a genetically engineered machine motivated by current research in synthetic biology and support the greater research community by providing open-source access to all materials. Team members will implement the engineering design-build-test-learn cycle to iterate novel genetic designs using computational resources, synthesize DNA constructs using current protocols, develop hypotheses and analyses of results from primary data, and share findings. Projects will likely address challenges in human health and disease, global/public health, ecological sustainability or tool development of new modules in synthetic biology. 

The team will also explore the ethical, legal and social implications of their projects, including the intersectionality of economic access, education and representation in STEM and biotechnology. Team members will interface with experts at Duke and other peer institutions to address challenges that occur in and out of the research lab.

Team members will share their findings at the international iGEM competition, which is joined by more than 300 university teams from around the world.

Anticipated Outputs

Student-developed genetically engineered machine; DNA constructs uploaded as “biobricks” to iGEM community; wiki website; poster/oral presentation/manuscript

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this project team will include 2 graduate students and 15 undergraduate students with backgrounds in life sciences fields (e.g., biology, biochemistry, biomedical engineering) and an interest in exploring genetic engineering, biotechnology and molecular/cell biology through wet-lab research practices. Students with interests in computer science and statistics that overlap with life sciences are also welcome to apply as are students with a desire to explore issues in biopolicy, biosecurity and bioethics.

By working in a collaborative team, undergraduate members of Duke iGEM will gain valuable insights from their peers as they explore the multifaceted discipline of synthetic biology. Members will learn theories and practice techniques in molecular biology, such as DNA assembly, bacterial transformation, mammalian cell culture and high-throughput screening. Students will critique primary literature in synthetic biology, public policy and research ethics, and maintain proper research conduct and follow the ideals of the iGEM community, including open access to data and DNA designs. In implementing the design-build-test-learn cycle, team members will build a genetically engineered machine that actuates a defined function and measure outputs to meet goals and hypotheses. 

A student will be selected to serve as project manager. 

This team includes optional summer components in Summer 2023 and 2024. Selected team members will have the opportunity to travel to present at the iGEM International Jamboree in November 2023.


Summer 2023 – Summer 2024

  • Summer 2023 (optional): Conduct literature review; prepare project and research plan; perform experiments; analyze results; share findings to team/general audience; interview stakeholders in human practices of synthetic biology
  • Fall 2023: Continue research; prepare poster presentation and video presentation; attend iGEM International Jamboree; receive feedback from judges to motivate next steps of project
  • Spring 2024: Onboard new members into modified project based on Fall 2023 feedback; finalize experiments for manuscript; prepare pre-print manuscript for submission; debrief findings from Jamboree; identify members who will continue with iGEM; discuss project changes; conduct literature review
  • Summer 2024 (optional): Continue iGEM project (or pursue different project based on feedback)


Academic credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding available

See earlier related team, Synthetic Biology and Genetic Engineering for Human Health and Society (2022-2023).


Image: Logo from Duke iGEM 2021 team

Logo of Duke iGEM team

Team Leaders

  • Cameron Kim, Pratt School of Engineering-Biomedical Engineering

/graduate Team Members

  • Anokh Ambadipudi,
  • Ashley Hsu,
  • Pranav Kannan,
  • Judy Lee,

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Janvi Bhatia, Neuroscience (BS)
  • Ashley Browne, Biomedical Engineering (BSE)
  • Shelby Cherkas, Biomedical Engineering (BSE)
  • Alexander Diefes, Mathematics (BS)
  • Dahlia Halabi, Biomedical Engineering (BSE)
  • Akshadha Jain
  • Palak Jolly
  • Robert Kaptur, Biomedical Engineering (BSE)
  • Kishan Patel, Biomedical Engineering (BSE)
  • Nicole Read, Biology (BS)
  • Jacqueline Reed, Interdepartmental Major
  • Giselle Russi, Biomedical Engineering (BSE)
  • Juliana Shank, Public Policy Studies (AB)
  • Hang Shi, Biology (BS)
  • Athanacia Varelas, Biology (AB)
  • Mingming Zhuang, Computer Science (AB)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Margaret Wacera Gatongi, Biomedical Engineering
  • Melanie Tran, Biomedical Engineering

/zcommunity Team Members

  • iGEM Organization
  • Duke Kunshan University iGEM