Tracks/Art Design


iGEM is a unique competition for students interested in designing and engineering with biology. Over the past ten years, thousands of students from dozens of countries have imagined a future where biology is the ultimate design medium built from open-source, standardized parts. The growth and success of iGEM has centered on the power of this vision of biological design.

iGEM calls for diverse teams of students and advisors to bring together knowledge from the sciences, engineering, and the humanities. The most successful teams work hard to consider their projects in a social context. They explore the ethical, legal, social, ecological, and safety implications of their work.

Since 2009, a number of teams have begun working closely with artists and designers to bring artistic inquiry and experimental and critical design to their projects. Artists and designers bring a unique sensibility to these lines of inquiry. They are well suited to identify and provocatively communicate the broad societal issues surrounding emerging biotechnology.


Art and design teams made up of different permutations of students from different disciplines have contributed greatly to iGEM. They have added significantly to the Registry with new BioBricks. They have innovated in Human Practices by imagining the future implications of synthetic biology. They have also found novel ways to communicate synthetic biology and its potential to the public.

Teams made solely of art and design students have made great strides at iGEM. ArtScienceBangalore 2011 won iGEM Best Human Practices Advance. They also won Honorary Mention at the International Prix Ars Electronica 2012, an important accolade in the art world. Two years earlier, ArtScienceBangalore 2009 created a BioBrick that produced the ‘smell of rain’ and won Best Presentation at iGEM.

On the other end of the spectrum, teams made solely of science and engineering students have made contributions to art and design practice, such as Harvard iGEM 2010 ‘iGarden’ and Cornell 2012. Meanwhile, teams made up of a combination of students from both the arts and sciences have had huge impacts on iGEM. University of Cambridge 2009, for example, won the Grand Prize, and Imperial College 2011 was the First Runner Up.

As chairs of the Art and Design Track, we continue to see art and design make significant contributions to iGEM and synthetic biology. These modes of creativity tap into our greatest hopes and fears for the technology. They also tap our greatest misconceptions. As the technology develops, art and design’s contribution will only get larger. Artists and designers will help us identify desirable applications for the science while warding us away from those less so.


There are many worthwhile books about the intersection of art and design and biology. These can serve to inspire you as they have us.


Some recent museum exhibitions have curated many great examples of art and design projects related to synthetic biology. The exhibition website includes a great deal of background on the role of art and design in biotechnology and includes videos of many of the artists discussing their work.

Zero Park, Sascha Pohflepp, German, 2013

Other iGEM Projects

Besides the projects listed above, many projects have brought together a range of artistic elements and design methods and many teams of engineers have collaborated with artists and designers on different aspects of their projects. This is of course far from a complete list, there are many many more great iGEM design projects than we could possibly list here!

Aqualose, Imperial College, London, 2014

What We're Looking For

In principle, we are looking for:

  • Thoughtful, critical investigation using art and design to open up our thinking.
  • Collaboration between artists, designers, engineers, scientists, and social scientists.
  • Projects that use art and design to consider and explore current and future implications of synthetic biology (including stakeholders, communication, pedagogy, thinking outwards), not designing fake applications that fail to add value to our understanding.
  • Projects that innovate around issues of applications, social, cultural, ethical, political, economic, ecological, and technological implications and applications of synthetic biology, especially related to the scientific aspects of the project, not just visualizing or aestheticizing biological material.
  • Projects that actively engage with the public, communities, and stakeholders to open debate and discussion.
  • Projects that ask, who will be using synthetic biology, and to whose benefit or detriment? What new laws might be needed? How might the technology change the way we live?


Art and Design teams must meet the general iGEM 2015 requirements. In addition, they must meet the following track specific requirements:

  • Team Composition: While iGEM is primarily a student competition, we acknowledge that there may be artists and designers who are interested in participating and who do not have a university affiliation. We strongly recommend that artists interested in participating with a team or forming their own iGEM team find team members and advisors from local universities or community labs. This is an experimental track, so please contact us at artdesign AT with any questions or concerns about participation and team requirements.

  • Project Presentation: Each team must give a twenty minute presentation discussing their project at the Jamboree, including description of goals, process, and outcomes. In addition, teams must present a poster during the Jamboree poster sessions. Please feel free to bring any additional materials that support the presentation of your projects. Special presentation requirements (e.g. video screening, installations) can be arranged on a case-by-case basis (deadline for special requests: October 1, 2014). Please contact artdesign AT with questions.

  • BioBrick Parts:Teams participating in the Art and Design tracks are strongly encouraged to work with the materials of synthetic biology, including BioBrick parts, although it is not a strict requirement. To receive a distribution copy of the parts registry, teams must request one from artdesign AT and have an affiliated university or community laboratory and follow all safety regulations. Teams that wish to use and submit a new part must adhere to safety and iGEM submission guidelines.

Medal Criteria

Please see the medals page for the Art and Design Track medal criteria.

The Applied Design Cross Track Prize

This prize is awarded to the team that has developed a synthetic biology product to solve a real world problem in the most elegant way. The students will have considered how well the product addresses the problem versus other potential solutions, how the product integrates or disrupts other products and processes, and how its lifecycle can more broadly impact our lives and environments in positive and negative ways.

Art and Design Committee

Students and mentors with questions about the iGEM 2015 Art and Design track, may contact artdesign AT

Chair: Daniel Grushkin is a former fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, where he researched the field of synthetic biology. He is an Emerging Leader in Biosecurity at the UPMC Center of Health Security. In 2010, he co-founded Genspace in Brooklyn, NY, the world’s first community laboratory. Fast Company ranked Genspace fourth among the top 10 most innovative education companies in the world. As a journalist, he reports on the intersection of biotechnology, culture, and business for publications including Bloomberg Businessweek, Fast Company, Scientific American and Popular Science.

Co-chair: Christina Agapakis is a biologist, writer, and artist interested in microbes, symbiosis, and the future of biotechnology. She is a partner at the biological design consultancy Icosahedron Labs and an adjunct professor of Media Design Practices at Art Center College of Design. In 2014, she chaired the iGEM Design Track. She is a writer for the Scientific American blog network and other online venues. She was a resident with the Synthetic Aesthetics project and a fellow at the UCLA Art|Science Center + Lab. She has a PhD in bioengineering from Harvard, where she worked on producing hydrogen fuel in bacteria and making photosynthetic animals.

Marguerite Benony

Heather Dewey-Hagborg is a transdisciplinary artist and educator, interested in art as research and critical practice. Assistant Professor of Art and technology Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Heather has shown work internationally at events and venues including the New York Public Library, Ars Electronica in Linz, the Poland Mediations Bienniale, the Science Gallery Dublin, University of Technology Gallery in Sydney, Maison des Arts de Créteil in Paris, among others.Her work has been featured in print in the New Yorker, New York Times, Arts Asia Pacific, Wall Street Journal, the Times of London, and Newsweek.

Karen Ingram is a designer, artist and creative director who uses her skill set to promote scientific awareness. Ingram is working with Natalie Kuldell on visual elements for Biobuilder (to be released April 2015). Ingram is a co-organizer of Brooklyn science cabaret, The Empiricist League, and is a board member of SXSW Interactive. She was an instructor for NYU SHERP’s pilot Entrepreneurial Science Journalism course. Her work has appeared in publications like Scientific American and The FWA, where she was named a “Digital Pioneer.” As a 2015 Synthetic Biology LEAP fellow, Karen is recognized as an emerging leader in the synbio community.

Suzanne Lee is a fashion designer and Creative Director of Modern Meadow, a biotech start up tackling the most difficult sustainability issues in materials creation. She is founder of Biocouture, a biocreative consultancy, and recently founded Biofabricate, which quickly became the leading industry conference. As a Senior Research Fellow at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, she pioneered growing clothing using living organisms and authored Fashioning the Future: Tomorrow’s Wardrobe, an examination of the application of science and technology research to fashion.

Wythe Marschall is a writer and Ph.D. student in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard, where he explores the intersection of biotechnology, ecology, and culture. Previously, Wythe taught humanities courses at Brooklyn College, curated art and science exhibitions and events in New York City, and worked in advertising, most recently for DraftFCB. His stories and essays have appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern and elsewhere.

Peter Yeadon is a professor of interior architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design. Prior to his arrival at RISD, he taught advanced design studios and thesis students at Cornell University and the University of Toronto. He is known for his pursuit of new applications for novel materials, particularly smart materials and nanotechnology. Yeadon is a licensed professional architect in the State of New York, and is the founder of Yeadon Space Agency in New York City. He is a member of the American Institute of Architects.