Team:UQ-Australia/Human Practices


The UQ-Australia iGEM team has been involved in a number of human practices and outreach activities throughout the year. In particular, we have presented synthetic biology to high school students at the BioFutures camp and to undergraduate physics students. Additionally, we have reviewed the issue of patented parts present to iGEM, and have been involved in the collaborative effort to create CommunityBricks and AlumniGEM. All these activities are summarised below. UQ-Australia logo 2011.png


In a dynamic field such as synthetic biology, discovery moves at an astounding pace and is driven by the findings of groups from all around the world. However, conflict often arises when the choice between collaboration and commercialisation arises, and consequently patents have become commonplace in the scientific world. In the last 5 years, 34% of respondents had applied for or received a patent on their findings. Additionally, 68% stated that they had sent research tools to others in academia [1]. This is especially relevant in iGEM, a competition whose explicit aim is to remain open source and collaborative. We examine whether this is a realistic or achievable goal within the framework of patents in the scientific world.

Within iGEM, the stipulation that all BioBricks must remain open source and redistributable means that patented material is inherently excluded from submission. This sort of restriction differs somewhat from the usual research experience, where 91% of scientists have not checked for patents on the material they used in the last 5 years [1]. However, iGEM falls in a unique `grey area’, which effectively prevents the use of any patented materials by participating teams with the requirement to submit their parts to the Registry to be redistributed. Although teams are using parts solely for research purposes, the nature of the registry and iGEM’s distribution kits means that by redistributing parts iGEM would be infringing on the patent holder. The UQ-Australia iGEM team is limited in their project due to patents on key components.

In the past, the issue of patenting has been less significant on iGEM with a recent survey indicating that less than twenty teams faced any legal issues regarding patenting and their parts [2]. This would likely be since the majority of teams worked in bacteria, where the parts have either never been patented, or any patents have since expired. However, as more explore synthetic biology in mammalian projects, patenting is going to become an unavoidable issue. Consequently, we propose two possible mechanisms for iGEM to handle patents on biological parts.

The first - and seemingly simplest - solution is to simply allow teams to use patented parts, and require them to submit the sequences online (including detailed information on how they modified and used it), but without requiring the submission of physical DNA samples. This would mean that other teams could still utilise parts by purchasing them direct from the license holder and modifying them as per the instructions, without the traffic or redistribution of any patented parts. The problem with this idea is that it is highly likely that the iGEM registry would then rapidly fill with these ‘information only’ pieces that cannot be included in the distribution kit. This goes against the central aim of iGEM and the BioBrick model if there is no sharing of parts. A slight alternative to this model would be to limit the number of patented parts each team could use and submit in such a way, but we feel that this still goes against the aims of iGEM, and depending on the individual team’s project may well still present problems.

As a result, we have developed another alternative solution. In this case, we propose that iGEM should enter into formal agreements with the companies or individuals holding the license of many patented materials. This could operate in a similar manner to iGEM’s current sponsorship agreements, whereby the companies in question get advertising on the iGEM website, or a presence at the jamborees, and in return they provide iGEM with an overarching licence agreement that allows the distribution of patented parts within the competition (i.e. amongst registered teams). In this way, the registry could continue operating as is, and teams would be unhindered in taking on their projects. This avoids the current ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ mentality that some has, and alleviates the issue of unwary teams not knowing to search for patents before initiating their projects.

However, we do see that this plan could open iGEM up to the influence of outside corporations, and of course that not all companies may be willing to undertake such a partnership. To keep iGEM independent of such parties, we think a well-defined agreement would be required that specifies exactly what each party agrees to, which we assume must be similar to any agreement iGEM has with its current sponsors. In effect, this agreement would just be another form of sponsorship, with both parties benefiting; the patent holders get access and exposure to a cohort of intelligent young scientists who will soon be entering the workforce or undertaking further research, while iGEM gets the ability to redistribute and modify these items within the competition’s community.

We foresee this option as a solution that complies with the aims of both patent-holders and iGEM:

Patent holders:

  • maintain ownership of their items
  • Profit in the long-term from past iGEM participants continuing to use their products outside of the competition


  • unlimited use of patented products
  • can offset any potential licensing fee by providing advertising to the companies
  • has the ability to share and standardise patented parts within the competition
  • maintains its independence from outside interests

Although iGEM has remained a staunchly open-source arena for innovation in synthetic biology, we feel that the current trend in science to patent any promising discoveries will mean that iGEM and the intellectual property (IP) field will inevitably cross paths more and more often as time goes on. Consequently, immediate action should be taken to achieve the best possible outcome for participating iGEM teams, while also retaining iGEM’s independent, open source nature as much as possible. We have presented two possible solutions to this problem – the first allows iGEM to avoid any direct contact with IP holders, but means that the quality of the distribution kit and BioBrick library could be compromised over time. The second solution requires more direct negotiation with licence holders, but would hopefully result in a licencing agreement allowing iGEM to keep on largely as it has been run in the past. If iGEM does decide to confront this issue, the choice it makes will depend on the direction the competition, and indeed synthetic biology as a whole, wishes to take in the future. In this constantly adapting scientific landscape, it is important that iGEM is able to fit in amongst the framework established by industry and the academic world to facilitate discovery and innovation, which is at the centre of synthetic biology and the scientific discipline.

[1] Lei, Z, Juneja, R & Wright, BD, 2009, ‘Patents versus patenting: implications of intellectual property protection for biological research’, Nature Biotechnology, vol. 27, pp. 36-40.

[2] Mexico-UNAM-CINVESTAV, 2010, `Human Practices: Survey Results', accessed 4 August 2011 from

We would like to thank Randy Rettberg from iGEM, David Douglas from School of History, Philosophy, Religion and Classics at the University of Queensland, Tim Kastelle of the UQ Business School at University of Queensland and Anne Fitzgerald from Creative Commons for their insightful discussion and thought provoking questions about the sharing patenting system.


As part of the Human practices work, UQ-Australia has promoted synthetic biology and iGEM to others. Major outreach ventures had included a presentation and activity at Biofutures: a national biotechnology student forum and is intended to also include a presentation at a local high school and PAIN Physics Society. The presentations had varying aims to suit the varying audience.


BF logo 2011.jpg Biofutures is a biotechnology forum for Year 11 and 12 students from Australia and New Zealand. UQ-Australia ran a workshop on 3 July 2011. This workshop included a presentation and a group activity. There are pictures and notes from this.

The aim of the contribution to Biofutures was to introduce iGEM as a possible option for them when they pursue their tertiary studies.

From this activity, students and mentors

  • went through some of the thinking process followed by the iGEM students when formulating a project
  • gained an idea of what has been happening for synthetic biology/ iGEM
  • were able to put synthetic biology into perspective with science and society

Notes for the Biofutures and PAIN activities can be downloaded HERE and are in CommunityBricks!

PAIN Physics Society

PAIN-UQ-Physics-Students-Society.png PAIN Physics Society is a student society for students with an interest in physics at the University of Queensland. Due to the interdisciplinary nature of synthetic biology and the generality of physics, a brief introduction to a new field of science seemed fitting.

The aim of hosting a PAIN event is to promote synthetic biology as an emerging research field and to promote interdisciplinary on both the biology and physics sides. From this activity, students and mentors

  • drew analogies between synthetic biology and cybernetics
  • went through some of the thinking process followed by the iGEM students when formulating a project
  • gained an idea of what has been happening for synthetic biology/ iGEM
  • were able to put synthetic biology into perspective with science and society


UQ-Australia iGEM Team has joined the iGEM Collaboration Committee. This committee includes:

Together we have set up CommunityBricks and AlumniGEM!


This is to be a registry of Human Practices activities available to everyone. These would include notes and reflections from human practices activities of all ranges.

The aim was to improve upon a simple 5-minute survey as performed in the past as 'the' human practices work and extending this to a collection of many activities, possibly combined to create the perfect activity for every audience.

In future years of the competition, it is hoped that past activities would be cataloged here to create registry of standardised interchangeable activities...much reflecting the structure of iGEM.

Brown-Stanford alumnigem.png

The aim of the AlumniGEM is to create a platform where past (and current!) iGEMers can

  • re-connect with each other
  • receive notifications about scholarships, internships and jobs
  • receive invitations to reunions

From the database of past iGEMers, this would also be a great for new iGEMers wanting to know the ins and outs of what it takes to be an iGEMer before joining. This is reflected in the survey being conducted here with collaboration from the Cambrigde iGEM Team.

Discussions with Meagan Lizarazo from iGEM HQ have led to the integration of AlumniGEM with iGEM to allow access to the platform for all participants.