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What is "Human Practices"?
"Human Practices is the study of how your work affects the world, and how the world affects your work."
— Peter Carr, Director of Judging
iGEM projects involve important questions "beyond the bench", relating to (but not limited to) ethics, sustainability, social justice, safety, security, environmental impact or intellectual property rights. As well, the field of synthetic biology demands thoughtful public engagement and dialogue, educating while inviting public input to shape the direction of research.
iGEM teams creatively address these questions in a wide variety of ways: environmental impact analyses, museum exhibits, intellectual property guides, children's books, "white hat" biosecurity investigations, forums with legislators, and even street theatre. Teams' efforts are often well integrated into the technical aspects of their project, and have a real influence upon design decisions. Please see the Exemplary Past Projects list to get an idea of the scope of possible activities!
Questions? Email us: humanpractices [AT] igem [DOT] org
Suggested Topic Areas
- Public Engagement / Dialogue
- Product Design
- Scale-Up and Deployment Issues
- Environmental Impact
- Law and Regulation
- Risk Assessment
Assessing Your Project
How might your project affect the health of humans or the environment? If it is a Health & Medicine project, will it be safe for patients, and will it have side effects? If it is an Environment project, will it affect biodiversity?
Consult with experts and consider the potential risks of your project. Think about how to address and minimize those risks.
Consider the economics of your project. How does it compare to competing technologies and methods for accomplishing the same goal? Is it possible to manufacture and sell your product at a price that your users are willing to pay? Who might lose their job -- or gain a new job -- as a result of your project?
How will people actually use your project? How will it be delivered (as a pill, as an environmental monitoring station, as a garden spray, as an industrial/factory process)? What should it cost? How quickly must it operate? How should users safely dispose of your product, once they are finished using it?
Approach some potential end-users of your project and find out about their daily lives. Examine how your project might fit into their daily routines, or how it might change their daily routines.
How will your project interact with the structures of power and oppression in the world today? Who are you trying to help, and is your project the best way to help them? Are you addressing the root cause of problems, or only alleviating a symptom? What political and social solutions might go along with your scientific solution? Can you advocate for political and social change alongside your project?
Helping the Practice of Science and Engineering
Law and Regulation
Synthetic biology is a new and rapidly changing field of engineering, and it presents great challenges for local, national, and international laws.
Are there lawmakers in your country who ought to know more about synthetic biology? See if you can give them an informative presentation!
What are the laws that apply to scientists, engineers, and DIY biologists in your country? Are any of them too strict, preventing the advancement of science? Are any of them too permissive, allowing scientists to proceed without accounting for the possible harms that might result? Discuss the situation with experts and write to your lawmakers!
Many iGEM projects could be risky for human health or the environment. Common safety devices, such as "kill switches" or auxotrophic chassis, have many flaws and often cannot reduce risks adequately. Can you design a device or toolkit that future iGEM teams could apply to reduce risks in their projects?
Could your project be misused by someone who wanted to purposefully hurt humans or the environment? Can you make changes in your design to prevent such purposeful misuse?
Can you spot any gaps in the laws, customs, and institutions that prevent malicious people from using synthetic biology to do harm? What exactly are the vulnerabilities? Can you do some "white hat hacking" to test those vulnerabilities? How could those vulnerabilities be fixed?
("White hat hacking" means that you openly and honestly test the security of a system, intending to expose and repair a vulnerability without exploiting it. For example, to test the security of a DNA synthesis company against people ordering dangerous pathogenic genes, you might place an order for dangerous pathogenic genes, but then contact the company, explain your intent, and ask them to halt the order before they actually send you any dangerous DNA.)
How does synthetic biology change our views of human life, nonhuman life, and the Earth? How do our views change the way we practice synthetic biology?
Public Outreach & Dialogue
What do members of the public think about your project, or about synthetic biology in general? Can you hold a two-way dialogue, in which your team and the public can learn from each other? Even if you think that members of the public are ignorant about synthetic biology, you might be surprised at the insights they can provide!
Exemplary Past Projects
Here are some examples of noteworthy Human Practices projects since 2010, identified by members of the Policy & Practices committee, who describe briefly what they thought was most interesting or novel about the project. These projects are presented in date order, and cover a wide spectrum of topics and approaches to working in Human Practices. We hope they provide inspiration for your work, and encourage you to think broadly about what Human Practices means to you!
Why Notable: This was one of the runners up for the HP award at the 2013 Asian Jamboree, and they did a good job cataloging the synthetic biology ecosystem in East Asia. The team produced detailed and well researched summaries of the various academic and industrial players, iGEM teams, and relevant funding bodies and regulations in each of the countries covered.
Suggested by: Scott Edmunds
Area of HP work: Engagement with broader communities, education and helping society.
This team won the HP award in the 2013 Asian Jamboree for pushing the boundaries of the education side of Human Practices, being the only team we saw that potentially saved peoples’ lives. Being based in India and doing a project on Shigella transmission and food poisoning, for the HP part of their project they instigated a grassroots campaign to educate consumers of the dangers and how to avoid Shigella contamination. They translated materials on the dangers of shigellosis into a number of regional languages, also going to small-scale slaughterhouses across the country to explain these issues in person.
Suggested by: Scott Edmunds
Area of HP work: Design in context; education.
This ASU team looked at childhood diarrhea for their iGEM project. But they realized that being able to detect contaminated water is only part of the solution to this health challenge. The team coupled their design of a technical fix with activities geared towards prevention, and implemented a hygiene and sanitation course alongside their project. They also considered the ethics of introducing new types of knowledge and practices into new communities.
Suggested by: Megan Palmer
Area of HP work: Philosophical investigations of synthetic biology.
This was an original philosophical project that was closely related to the scientific work being done by the team, who introduced Xenopus tropicalis as a new chassis for iGEM. Their sophisticated philosophical and historical analysis of the Human Practices work challenged some of the taken-for-granted assumptions of iGEM, by asking whether the term ‘chassis’ – borrowed from mechanical engineering – is appropriate to apply to a model organism (and animal) like a frog. Importantly, the project drew our attention to the ‘non-innocence’ of metaphors in synthetic biology. Overall, it transcended simple ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ discussions, raising thought-provoking questions rather than imposing one particular answer.
Suggested by: Jane Calvert
Area of HP work: Intellectual property in synthetic biology.
The 2012 Stanford-Brown iGEM team forayed into the realm of Practices when they encountered a patent that appeared to cover a gene they wished to use in their work. Unsure how to approach reading or understanding the patent, they sought the help of experts (it turns out both parents of one of the students were patent attorneys). They realized they were not the only iGEM team to encounter patenting issues and decided to create a practical iGEM-specific guide to U.S. patent law. As a complement to their practical guide, the team also compiled reviews to spur discussion amongst iGEMers on the ethics of gene patenting.
Suggested by: Linda Kahl
Useful project links:
Area of HP work: Intellectual property in synthetic biology.
The 2012 UBC iGEM team explored intellectual property as part of their work on Practices. They developed a survey to assess the experience of iGEM teams with patents and other property rights, and then created a country-neutral guide to intellectual property that reflected the interests of the iGEM community. Importantly, the UBC iGEM team networked with other iGEM teams to get an impressively high rate of participation for their survey.
Suggested by: Linda Kahl
Useful project links:
Area of HP work: Education, and making iGEM participation easier for participants.
The team that won the HP award in the 2012 Asian Jamboree demonstrated how a software team can make a great impact on the education and practices side, producing a much more intuitive BioBrick search interface, as well as gamification of software to help the teaching of BioBrick standard assembly using fun puzzle games. Building something useful on an open API, this is also a nice example of the benefits of the iGEM open source approach.
Suggested by: Scott Edmunds
Area of HP work:Using Policy and Practices to inform the design of a synthetic biological device.
The Human Practices activities in this project were extremely well-integrated with the scientific work – the team put equal weight on experimental work, Human Practices and modelling. Human Practices work involved engaging with a wide range of stakeholders including companies, plant scientists and charities concerned with desertification, and holding interdisciplinary human practices panel discussions drawing on people with a range of different expertise. These discussions informed the design choices made by the team.
Suggested by: Jane Calvert
Area of HP work: Product Design, Marketing and Commercialization
The Bristol team was working on developing a nitrate sensor for soil applications. What was impressive about their Human Practices work was how the team was able to take their idea and look at the possibilities for implementing this project in the real world. They went out and engaged farmers in their area, asking them if they saw value in using their system as a product, challenged ideas pertaining to GMO use in industry, and gathered a large amount of data to show whether their concept could be adopted in the real world. From these interviews they inspired their system and developed marketing materials (pamphlets, etc.) to engage their potential customer base.
Suggested by: David Lloyd
Do you have a story about your team's Human Practices experience, and how it benefited your project overall? Email hq (at) igem (dot) org, and we'll add it here!
Besides the valuable information we gained, doing field trips and taking a break from the lab is a fun team bonding experience! [...] It was extremely helpful to meet directly with the people whom would be most effected by our technology, and to gain a broad understanding of our problem space. By validating our scientific reasoning and project design with industry experts, we gained the insights we needed to develop a product that would be the most useful to the very people most likely to use it.
— Simon Staley, UC Davis 2014
As our team brainstormed ideas, we sought to build a project that was 1. representative of our university’s unique strengths, 2. that would be relevant to our local economic and social context and 3. that would be multidisciplinary and lend itself to collaboration with other university faculty and departments. Because UC Davis is an agricultural powerhouse, we chose a project within the field of agricultural biotechnology. Given that 70% of olive oil in the U.S. is defective before it’s sold and that our home state of California is the nation’s leading producer of olive oil, we chose to build an inexpensive and modular biosensor that could help meet the quality control needs of local producers. This would enable them to ensure high quality produce and differentiate themselves from the low industry standard. At the time, our state agricultural commission was also considering new regulations on olive oil quality, but had raised questions over the feasibility of enforcing stricter regulations on quality with current technology.
To this end, our project could intersect with the economic, commercial, and public policy aspects of the olive oil industry.
Once we had our idea, we wanted to connect with the stakeholders in the olive oil industry as much as possible, establishing a partnership with the UC Davis Olive Center, touring multiple olive oil companies and meeting with their quality control managers, attending a public hearing at the State Capitol over the new state quality standards, and also conducting olive oil tastings at local supermarkets to learn more about the way consumers view the importance of higher quality olive oil. Besides the valuable information we gained, doing field trips and taking a break from the lab is a fun team bonding experience!
In essence, our project was built around a real-world issue and was designed to meet that need most effectively. It was extremely helpful to meet directly with the people whom would be most effected by our technology, and to gain a broad understanding of our problem space. By validating our scientific reasoning and project design with industry experts, we gained the insights we needed to develop a product that would be the most useful to the very people most likely to use it.
All in all, we sought to tackle a relevant issue, gain as much background knowledge as possible by getting out and meeting people, and lastly, to build our project with the application in mind.
We hypothesized that hazardous sequences could potentially be frameshifted and hidden within normal sequences. [...] During this process our team had a chance to reflect and ask a very important question — whether creating this technology was worth the potential risk.
— Suneet Kharey, Lethbridge 2013
The University of Lethbridge iGEM team received a Security Commendation from the FBI in 2013. This commendation recognized our team’s proactive assessment of a potential dual-use of their developed technology. Our team engineered an RNA element that could be used to induce a programmed -1 frameshift during translation (protein biosynthesis). While looking into potential applications of our technology aside from the intended use, we hypothesized that hazardous sequences could potentially be frameshifted and hidden within normal sequences. This could be used to trick DNA synthesis companies in unknowingly synthesizing genetic constructs or even pathogens for malicious use. When investigating the measures in place to prevent this, we found out that currently the regulation of what sequences are synthesized, as well as the buyer screening, falls solely upon the synthesis companies. As such, our team wanted to ensure due diligence and contacted / informed the companies of the potential risk that the frameshifting element (FrameChanger) imposed.
Furthermore, we wanted to test if the current screening methods in place would be able to catch any potentially dangerous constructs containing sequences hidden with their FrameChanger technology. In order to achieve this, we engineered sequences to include frameshifted elements from Ricin and other known pathogens. The sequences were then sent to 10 synthesis companies worldwide in order to test their current scanning methods. Out of those 10 companies, only 2 responded to initial inquiries but they were able to detect 100% of the challenge sequences.
To do this successfully it was critical to have the University of Lethbridge Risk and Safety department informed and endorse our interaction with the synthesis companies to avoid the potential risk for the University, such as being placed on a “black list “by the synthesis companies. Our team also met with the University of Lethbridge Risk and Safety department to go over potential risks associated with the technology and its potential to hide hazardous sequences. We also collaborated with the FBI in order to ensure this technology could not be used by potential bio-terrorists. During this process our team had a chance to reflect and ask a very important question — whether creating this technology was worth the potential risk.
We are always adding more resources to this section. If you know of a resource that helped you in your Human Practices, please suggest it! Email hq (at) igem (dot) org and we'll add it to the list.
How to choose your iGEM project while keeping Human Practices in mind — blog post by Andy Balmer, 2010 Sheffield team advisor & 2011 judge
Who is the Human Practices Committee?
Email: humanpractices [AT] igem [DOT] org
- Todd Kuiken, Synthetic Biology Project, Woodrow Wilson Center
- Megan Palmer, Stanford University and UC Berkeley (co-chair)
- Emma Frow, University of Edinburgh (co-chair)
- Laura Adam, James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies
- Nancy Burgess, US Department of Health & Human Services
- Jane Calvert, University of Edinburgh
- Linda Kahl, BioBricks Foundation
- David Lloyd, FREDsense Technologies
- Kenneth Oye, MIT Program on Emerging Technologies
- Piers Millett, Woodrow Wilson Center and UN Institute for Disarmament Research
- Samuel Yu, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
- Scott Edmunds, BGI
- Tim Trevan, International Council for the Life Sciences
- Samuel Weiss Evans, UC Berkeley and MIT
- Andy Balmer, University of Manchester
- (others TBA)