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iGEM: Compete to Develop Synthetic Biology Products

In today’s world, diseases for which we do not have a cure or a full knowledge, still exist. This prevents the healthcare workers to detect early diagnosis, provide help and ease the pain of the patients when deeply needed. Currently, many scientists and eager minds are in the search for tackling these issues, however there is still a long way to go. Bearing this in mind, we will now take a closer look at the concept of “iGEM” and synthetic biology advancements with the help of its contestants and true enthusiasts.

image taken from: Wageningen University & Research

First of all, it is definitely for the best to define the iGEM competition (International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition) and fully comprehend its motivations. For this aim, we had the chance to chat with the leader of the iGEM team at Saint Joseph High School, Bora Ciner. He explained: “iGEM is a synthetic biology competition which started at MIT in 2003. Many teams from numerous countries develop products using synthetic biology and introduce them”. He further elaborated on the motives by mentioning the human practices as the following: “The main purpose of the competition is to contribute to humanity. We contact related local resources and local people who could express their opinions or experiences on the current topic”. It was also added that student contestants could participate in three categories such as “ High School, Undergraduate and Overgraduate”.

Bora Ciner expresses with enthusiasm that this year, they are working on a way to detect an early diagnosis for “Behçet’s Disease”. It is often seen in Turkiye and Central Asia, and it has various symptoms such as eye inflammation and intestinal pain. Moreover, it seems that they were influenced by the fact that the proposed pathergy test for the disease takes a long time to realize and requires much effort. A team member, Dora Altuğ, also added that meeting specific conditions are required to be able to access this test, which eventually puts more emphasis on the importance of early diagnosis and the starting point of this project.

photo: mentioned team in the lab environment

Having obtained all this information about the competition, it is now more interesting to get an insight into the preparation process and the roadmap of participant teams. On this point, Bora Ciner stated: “We started with a very intense preparation process. We designated our main goal with the desire to contribute to the local people” as he reminded the slogan of iGEM: “Local People Solving Local Problems”. He further indicated that they receive education in regard to both theoretical and practical exercises on genetic engineering at the beginning of the year with the help of their current advisor, to whom they consult in the need of further technical knowledge. Also, throughout the year, all team members discover their interests and talents by themselves and orientate towards a specific branch in the team such as Lab, PR, or IT. Additionally, by emphasizing that one member can work in different branches at the same time, he further highlighted the multidisciplinary aspect of the competition and the productive research procedure.

Lastly, we asked them about the challenges they face as participants in this competition and high school students who are eager to conduct their research in the industry of synthetic biology. The first and foremost aspect that they mentioned was the financial struggles. On this matter, they stated:

“The competition itself is expensive. Along with the help of the alumni of our school, we consult pharmaceutical companies and they have sponsored the laboratory.” Immediately afterward, they mentioned that the competition is also inspiring for others as it led to the opening of the first high school synthetic biology laboratory in Turkiye, with the sponsorship of an alumnus. The last indicated aspect about the difficulties, was not being taken as seriously as younger minds in science. Dora Altuğ laid stress on the lack of attention concerning scientific research as they have a hard time requesting financial support from local private enterprises, whereas it is much easier to get the help of foreign pharmaceutical companies.

Considering the concept of the competition and all of the hardships that the contestants face, it is evident that we need more time to reach the point that we want in terms of the interest shown towards science and, especially, to younger scientists. Nevertheless, we now have a clearer view of what this competition has to offer and what is definitely needed to be provided in order to support scientific advancements.

Edited by: Bilge Öztürk

Cover image taken from:

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