Synthetic Biology and Genetic Engineering for Human Health and Society: Duke iGEM (2021-2022)


The ability to control biological systems with impunity has advanced significantly since the first intentional practice of genetic engineering in the 1970s. Manipulating DNA in microorganisms and mammalian cells to express genes from heterologous organisms has created entirely new disciplines, such as DNA nanotechnology, directed enzyme evolution and synthetic biology. 

An annual competition, International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM), encourages university and high school students to explore synthetic biology in hands-on, collaborative research experiences. The Duke iGEM team was founded to stimulate and nurture students’ passions in science and engineering with a focus on synthetic biology and biotechnology exploration and to prepare them as future leaders, innovators and researchers in these emerging fields. Students participate in all aspects of the engineering cycle as well as consider the human and ethical practices of their research. In preparation for the international iGEM Jamboree, students analyze current scientific literature, present orally and in written communications, and work in an interdisciplinary team of scientists, philosophers and policy experts to assess the impact 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 in organisms such as E. coli and mammalian cells, and share findings. 

The team will design a research project that integrates genetic engineering and molecular biology techniques (e.g. CRISPR/Cas9, high throughput screening, microfluidic devices) with synthetic DNA constructs that will be assembled by teams in genetically engineering machines. Projects will address challenges in human health and disease, global/public health, ecological sustainability or tool development of new modules in synthetic biology. Team members will use advanced synthetic biology and metabolic engineering methodologies in their proposed solutions. They will also review literature and work from previous iGEM teams to prepare a research plan that follows the engineering design-build-test-learn cycle.

The team will develop a genetically engineered machine motivated by current research in synthetic biology and support the greater community with open-source access to all materials. Team members will also explore the ethical, legal and social implications of synthetic biology and engage with the local community to educate others, including high school students. 

Learn more about this project team by viewing the team's video.

Anticipated Outputs

Genetically engineered machine; “Biobricks” for open access use; Wiki website with project outcomes; poster; oral presentation; manuscript

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this project team will be comprised of 2 graduate students and 15 undergraduate students. Interested students will likely be from a variety of majors, including life sciences fields, computer science, statistics, public policy, philosophy and ethics. No previous research experience is necessary as peers and advisors will assist in training of these fundamental techniques. 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.

iGEM is a uniquely collaborative research experience led by the team of undergraduates who design the project and carry out its implementation, with advisement and mentorship from graduate students and faculty. All members gain valuable experience and practice in the research process and its societal considerations. Students receive and provide mentoring and leadership opportunities that are invaluable in their future careers as experts in synthetic biology.

In Fall 2021, this team will meet on Sundays from 5:30-7:30 p.m.

Selected students will have the opportunity to travel to Boston in November 2021 for the iGEM International Jamboree. 

The summer component is optional but highly recommended. Those selected for travel will be expected to work over the summer. Summer work will be around 4 weeks to 9 weeks. Over the summer, students are expected to work 8 hours every weekday (or more depending on progress).


Summer 2021 – Summer 2022

  • Summer 2021 (optional): Conduct literature review; prepare project and research plan; perform experiments; analyze results; share findings to team/general audience; interview experts in human practices of synthetic biology
  • Fall 2021: Continue research; prepare poster presentation and video presentation; selected students attend iGEM International Jamboree; receive feedback from judges to motivate next steps of project
  • Spring 2022: Finalize experiments for manuscripts; prepare preprint manuscript for submission; debrief findings from Jamboree; identify members who will continue with iGEM; discuss project changes; conduct literature review
  • Summer 2022 (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: Duke iGEM (2020-2021).


Image: iGEM logo, courtesy of iGEM Foundation and Justin Knight

iGEM logo.

Team Leaders

  • Cameron Kim, Pratt School of Engineering-Biomedical Engineering
  • Zhaohui Wang, Pratt School of Engineering-Biomedical Engineering

/graduate Team Members

  • Celeste Brassard, No Major Declared
  • Hannah Devens, Biology - PHD
  • Konrad Slaman, No Major Declared
  • Casey Syal, No Major Declared
  • Isabella WangNo Major Declared
  • Sabina Yampolsky, No Major Declared

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Caroline Anderson, Biology (BS)
  • Emily Caplan
  • Tim Ho, Biomedical Engineering (BSE), Computer Science (BSE2)
  • Ashley Jones, Biology (BS)
  • Sara Liszeski, Computer Science (BS)
  • Andy Qiao, Biomedical Engineering (BSE)
  • David Ramirez, Biomedical Engineering (BSE), Electrical & Cmputr Egr (BSE2)
  • Nicolas Rey, Biology (BS)
  • Jessica Shah, Biomedical Engineering (BSE)
  • Kate Straneva, Computer Science (BS)
  • Xiao Wu, Biomedical Engineering (BSE)
  • Happy Yao, Biology (BS), Pre-College