iGEM and the Biotechnology Workforce of the Future

Health Secur. 2020 Jul/Aug;18(4):303-309. doi: 10.1089/hs.2020.0017.


An important factor in growing the US bioeconomy is recruiting and training its future workforce. Other science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields have relied on diverse educational opportunities for recruitment, including prestigious high school and collegiate competitions. For genetic engineering and synthetic biology, there are very few competitions; they include the Biodesign Competition and the much larger and scientifically focused International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. iGEM, run by an independent nonprofit organization, is often cited as a measure of progress in developing the synthetic biology workforce. Starting in 2021, iGEM will move its main competitive event, the "Giant Jamboree," from its long-standing home in Boston to Paris, which is likely to negatively affect participation by the US team. In this article, we describe the value of iGEM to the bioeconomy and its upcoming challenges through a review of available literature, observation of the iGEM Jamboree, and interviews with 10 US-based iGEM team coaches. The coaches expressed positive views about the iGEM process for their students in providing a hands-on biotechnology experience, but they were concerned about the funding US students received to participate in iGEM compared with teams from other countries. They were also concerned that the relocation to Paris would negatively affect or preclude their participation. Possible options to continue the benefits of experiential learning in synthetic biology are discussed, including alternative funding for iGEM teams through a grant process and the need for additional biology competitions.

Keywords: Bioeconomy; Biotechnology; Workforce development; iGEM.

MeSH terms

  • Biotechnology / education*
  • Genetic Engineering*
  • Humans
  • Students
  • Synthetic Biology / education*
  • United States
  • Workforce / trends