Synthetic Biology and Genetic Engineering for Human Health and Society: Duke iGEM (2020-2021)


Rapid advances in synthetic and systems biology, nanotechnology and metabolic and enzyme engineering are having profound impacts on biotechnology and related engineering fields. The Duke Undergraduate International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Team was founded to stimulate students’ interest in science and engineering and prepare them to be future leaders in these emerging fields.

The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the advancement of synthetic biology and the development of an open community, currently comprised of over 45 participating countries.

Project Description

Advancing the state of synthetic biology both in the lab and beyond, this project team will work with an advanced genome editing system (CRISPR-cas9) for genetic engineering. Working within the Woo Center for Big Data and Precision Medicine, the team will identify a contemporary problem facing the larger community, then propose and build a synthetic biological solution composed of a genetically engineered microbial machine.

Projects may address numerous challenges such as human health and disease, global health, sustainability and bioenergy. Team members will use advanced synthetic biology and metabolic engineering methodologies in their proposed solutions.

The team will design, build and test a genetically engineered machine, and submit a set of BioBricks (standardized, modular DNA segments) to an international repository accessible by universities and independent labs across the world. Team members will also prepare an informational website regarding their iGEM project, submit a research paper to the bioRxiv and create a policy brief or safety report addressing the societal impacts of the developed synthetic biology solution.

In addition to the technical aspects of the project, the team’s projects incorporate a substantial policy component that encourages creative thinking about the societal landscape of synthetic biology. Entrepreneurship will also be emphasized as team members seek ways to implement their projects within society. The team will also work closely with the local community, such as teaching at high schools, and increase community awareness of the impact of synthetic biology.

Anticipated Outputs

Genetically engineered machine; team website; research paper; policy/safety report

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this project team will be comprised of 2 graduate students and 12 undergraduate students. Interested students will likely be from a variety of majors, including biomedical engineering, chemistry, biology, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, mathematics, computer science, statistical science, visual arts and design, economics and public policy. Prospective applicants should be interested in developing independent research skills.

Students will be able to conduct research that addresses an issue they are passionate about, network with biotech industry and academic leaders and develop leadership skills.

A student will be selected to serve as project manager. Selected students will have the opportunity to travel. Those selected for travel will be expected to work over the summer.


Spring 2020 – Fall 2020

  • Spring 2020: New team member training; completion of initial machine design; creation of mock iGEM website
  • Summer 2020 (optional): Community engagement projects; building and testing of genetic designs; development of mathematical models
  • Fall 2020: Project presentation at iGEM international competition; drafting of preprint research paper


Independent study available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding available

See related teams, Duke Undergraduate International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Team (2021-2022) and Duke Undergraduate International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Team (2018-2019).


Image: Previous Duke iGEM team members work on their project.

Team members.

Team Leaders

  • Xiling Shen, Pratt School of Engineering-Biomedical Engineering
  • Zhaohui Wang, Pratt School of Engineering-Biomedical Engineering

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Caroline Anderson, Biology (BS)
  • Andres Bermudez
  • Trevor Gannalo, Biology (BS)
  • Ruopu Jiao, Biomedical Engineering (BSE), Computer Science (AB2)
  • Ashley Jones, Biology (BS)
  • Sara Liszeski, Computer Science (BS)
  • Andy Qiao, Biomedical Engineering (BSE)
  • Isabella Wang
  • Happy Yao, Biology (BS), Pre-College

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Jason Somarelli, School of Medicine-Medicine: Medical Oncology