Learn how to be safe in synthetic biology!

Welcome to the Safety page!

My name is Kelly, and I'm here to help you with any questions or problems you might have about safety in iGEM.

You can contact me by email (safety AT igem DOT org), Skype text chat (kelly_igem), or Twitter (@Kelly_iGEM).

I also like to talk about Human Practices!

Check out my blog post about iGEM Safety!

Safe & Responsible Synthetic Biology

iGEM teams follow a high standard of safe and responsible biological engineering. Because you are members of the synthetic biology community, you are responsible for living up to the trust placed in you to design, build, and share biological devices safely.

Safe Project Design

Watch a video about Safe Project Design

Be a responsible engineer! Think carefully about what would happen if you completely "finished" your project, and turned it into a product that real people use. What effects might it have in the real world? Here are some questions to get you started:

  • Who will use your product? What opinions do these people have about your project?
  • Where will your product be used? On a farm, in a factory, inside human bodies, in the ocean?
  • If your product is successful, who will receive benefits and who will be harmed?
  • What happens when it's all used up? Will it be sterilized, discarded, or recycled?
  • Is it safer, cheaper, or better than other technologies that do the same thing?

Consider these questions, and consider how you might modify your project design in response to these real-world issues. Even if you cannot think of a good modification, you can discuss the problem with others, and propose future experiments to find a good solution.

Safe Lab Work

Watch a video about Safe Lab Work

All biological lab work, even simple experiments, carries some risk to the experimenter. To reduce these risks, iGEM teams should work in properly equipped facilities and use standard lab safety techniques. Teams should also consider the organisms and parts they will work with, and what hazards are associated with these organisms/parts by themselves or in combination. We encourage iGEM teams to pursue ambitious projects and to reduce risks by using safer substitutes for more dangerous organisms/parts.

Working Safely with Parts

Safety Flag

The iGEM Safety Committee puts Safety Red Flags on certain parts in the Registry, which present safety risks beyond what is normal for the Registry. Be extra careful when handling these parts, and consult with your team instructors to determine if you need any additional safety precautions. Any part with a Red Flag requires a Check-In before you acquire or use that part.

Here is a complete list of all parts that have Red Flags.

When you work with biological parts, you must consider the function of each part to determine whether and how you can handle it safely. We encourage iGEM teams to avoid the use of dangerous parts and to seek safer alternatives.

  • Toxins: Is your part toxic to humans? It could encode a protein that is toxic by itself (like Botulinum toxin, a.k.a. Botox), or perhaps it is an enzyme that synthesizes a toxic small molecule.
  • Virulence Factors: Virulence factors are genes that give microbes certain capabilities to infect or sicken people. Although these capabilities can be useful in synthetic biology, they also make microbes more dangerous. For example:
    • Proteins that enable bacteria to attach to the outside of human cells
    • Proteins that enable bacteria to invade human cells
    • Cell-exterior proteins or carbohydrates that protect bacteria from the immune system
    Visit Virulence Factors of Pathogenic Bacteria to learn more.
  • Parts in Combination and Context: Even if the individual parts in your project are safe, they may have a dangerous function when combined. You must think about how your parts will work together. Could they imitate the function of a virulence factor? Could they be harmful to humans or the environment in some other way?

If you are unsure about a part, consult your team instructors or your institutional biosafety officers. You can also email safety AT igem DOT org for advice!

Working Safely with Organisms

Microorganisms are generally classified into four Risk Groups, according to how dangerous they are to humans. The majority of iGEM teams use Risk Group 1 organisms, such as yeast or E. coli K-12. A few teams use Risk Group 2 organisms, such as human cell lines. iGEM teams are not permitted to use Risk Group 3 or 4 organisms, or to work in Safety Level 3 or 4 laboratories.

Appropriate safety precautions depend on the Risk Group of the organisms you work with. Choose an appropriate lab facility and use the correct protective equipment for the organisms you use in your project.

Read the page about Risk Groups and Safety Levels for more detail, including how to find out which Risk Group an organism is in.

General Lab Safety Manuals
  • Synthetic Biology: A Lab Manual by Liljeruhm, Gullberg, and Forster: general guide to laboratory work in synthetic biology, with a chapter on basic safety practices. Purchase on Amazon
  • WHO Biosafety Manual: PDF format, in several languages (English, Français, Español, Português, 中文, Русский, Italiano, 日本語, Српски / srpski, Tiếng Việt)
  • Biosafety in Microbial and Biomedical Laboratories (BMBL): a comprehensive guide to laboratory safety, published by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Non-Biological Hazards

Laboratories also have physical and chemical hazards, such as:

  • Fire
  • Sharp objects & broken glass
  • Extreme cold temperatures (e.g. liquid nitrogen)
  • Acids and corrosive chemicals
  • Toxins (e.g. acrylamide)

Follow your institution's rules about how to work safely with these hazards.

Safe Shipment

Protect your part submissions from delays and blockages!

iGEM teams and the Registry frequently exchange samples of DNA through the mail. Although these shipments are generally not dangerous, they are still governed by national and international laws. iGEM teams should learn how to ship DNA samples safely and legally, and learn which samples should not be shipped.

Why are there laws about shipping DNA?

Countries regulate the shipment of DNA across their national borders in order to keep dangerous genetic material under control. This is both to prevent people accidentally being harmed (by a spill or lab accident), and to prevent malicious actors from obtaining dangerous materials.

The vast majority of DNA that is sent and received by iGEM teams poses no risks and is perfectly safe for shipment. However, it is worthwhile to understand the rules and best practices around shipping DNA, both so that your routine safe shipments are less likely to be delayed by customs, and so that you can respond appropriately if you ever do want to ship something potentially dangerous.

Packaging and Customs

When you submit parts for the 2015 competition, use the standard DNA Submission Kit that came with your 2015 Distribution, and follow the directions on the Registry.

Do not attempt to disguise the nature of your shipment. Disguised shipments will not be accepted by iGEM HQ, and any parts that arrive in a disguised shipment will not be eligible for awards. Disguised shipments include:

  • Dishonest or misleading labeling on the outside of the package
  • Dishonest, misleading, or incomplete customs declarations
  • DNA samples hidden inside "non-scientific looking" materials, like books or clothing

If you anticipate having problems with your shipment getting through customs, prepare and send your shipment well ahead of time. We also recommend preparing your samples as dried DNA rather than liquid.

Here are some good general guidelines for shipping non-hazardous biological materials from the University of Edinburgh.

Genes to Avoid Shipping

Different countries have different laws about what DNA cannot be shipped across national/state borders. If you are unsure, you should consult the biosafety office of your institution.

As a starting point, you can consult the Australia Group List and the U.S. Select Agents and Toxins List. If any of your parts come from organisms on the Australia Group List or the Select Agents and Toxins list, please contact iGEM (email safety AT igem DOT org) to discuss whether you should refrain from submitting these parts to the Registry.

Requirements for Teams


Some organisms and parts present risks beyond what is ordinary for lab work in synthetic biology. As your project progresses, you should consider the risks presented by each organism and part you plan to use. The White List can help you with this.

Before you acquire or use any organism/part that is NOT on the White List, you must submit a Check-In. Check-Ins allow the iGEM Safety Committee to help you ensure that you will work safely with these riskier organisms/parts.

Complete a Check-In here

"About Our Lab" Questionnaire — Due June 26

This is a short questionnaire about the laboratory where you will work on your project. Complete it by June 26.

Complete the "About Our Lab" questionnaire here

"About Our Project" Questionnaire — Due June 26 & update when your primary project idea changes

This is a short questionnaire about your primary project idea. Its main purpose is to encourage you to think about the safety of your project as a whole, rather than focusing narrowly on individual parts. It can also help you think about future applications of your project, and what safety/health/environmental issues would be important to consider.

You should complete the "About Our Project" questionnaire by June 26, and then revise it if you choose a new primary project idea.

Complete the "About Our Project" questionnaire here

Final Safety Form — Due August 28

The Final Safety Form is a more comprehensive review of your project, and it must be signed by an Instructor or Primary Contact of your team.

Complete the Final Safety Form here


Ask your Instructors!

Your first resource is always your instructors, advisors, and professors. They have experience working in their own lab facilities, and they know how to work with your university to ensure lab safety. Other local resources include:

  • The laboratory manager for the lab where you work
  • The safety office or Biosafety Committee at your university/institution
  • Members of your local or national government

Contact the iGEM Safety Committee!

Email safety AT igem DOT org any time, with any questions you might have! We are friendly and available, and we will do our best to answer your questions quickly. Any team member can ask a question, whether you are a student, a leader, or an advisor. You should not fear that your team will suffer consequences simply because you asked us a question.

Virtual Open Office Hours

At various times during the summer, we will host Virtual Open Office Hours on Skype. Join us to ask questions, discuss concerns, and meet other iGEMers from around the world!

  • Tuesday, May 19, 2015: 12:00 noon and 9:00 pm EDT
  • Thursday, June 25, 2015: 12:00 noon and 9:00 pm EDT
  • (further times to be determined)

You will need Skype to participate.

Our Responsibility

Students are responsible for:

  • Working safely in the laboratory
  • Carefully considering safety issues in their projects, and consulting instructors or the iGEM Safety Committee as needed
  • Completing safety forms
  • Striving to be conscientious members of the synthetic biology community

Instructors are responsible for:

  • Teaching their students to work safely in the laboratory, and answering questions about safety
  • Being actively involved in the development of the iGEM project
  • Reviewing and certifying the Final Safety Form
  • Ensuring the project is in good standing with the biosafety authorities of the host university/institution

The iGEM Safety Committee is responsible for:

  • Educating iGEM participants about how to work safely and responsibly in synthetic biology
  • Reviewing and approving safety forms promptly
  • Performing safety checks on Registry parts

All participants are responsible for working safely in the laboratory, and for ensuring that your project complies with local laws and university/institutional guidelines. The iGEM Safety Committee is not a substitute for the biosafety regulations of your country, or for the lab safety guidelines of your university. By approving your forms (About Our Lab form, About Our Project form, Check-Ins, Final Safety Form), the iGEM Safety Committee is only affirming that your team has permission to participate in iGEM. We cannot certify that your project is completely safe (even "safe" organisms, like E. coli K-12, can present some risks!). Likewise, we cannot certify that your project is in compliance with all applicable rules and regulations of your university/institution, local government, national government, and/or international treaties.

Safety Committee

The iGEM Safety Committee is a group of experts in biosafety, biosecurity, and risk assessment. Its members come from diverse areas of industry, academia, and government. The committee helps create iGEM's safety program and gives expert advice on potential safety issues in the competition.