Team:KU Leuven/Contribution

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BLADEN contributions


General contribution

We have provided the iGEM community with a foundational project that is worthy of continuation. A lot of brainstorming went into the creation of BLADEN and we hoped to have convinced others to pursue the interesting field of directed evolution in plants. To summarize, we have provided the iGEM community, through our wiki and year-long efforts, with:

  1. The addition of a new, documented open-source software for directed evolution experiments.
  2. A hardware concept that may act as an inspiration for future iGEM teams.
  3. Designed the basis of an experiment that involves the improvement of riboswitches.
  4. A new collection of parts to the parts registry.
  5. An EvolvR manual for directed evolution.
  6. An iGEM alternative Cycle, Story and Tips for school with the same academic schedule as the KU Leuven.

EvolvR manual

As a foundational project, we are developing a new plant biotechnological toolkit for the accelerated continuous directed evolution of plants. This toolkit is based on EvolvR, a CRISPR-based technology, that was first developed in bacteria and has since only been implemented in yeast. We believe that this technology has the potential to advance many areas of biotechnological research and it may have many uses for iGEM teams as well. In this manual, we have described EvolvR and its mechanism in detail to build a better understanding of how to best use it by iGEM teams.

iGEM alternative cycle, story and tips

Let me paint you a picture of the iGEM cycle we think most of the iGEM (former) members will recognize.
Anytime you start a group project of this size, it is easy to get overwhelmed at the beginning and lost on where to start chopping away at the mountain of tasks and deadlines ahead of you. In phase one of the iGEM cycle, you get accepted into a team with people you have never met. The team dynamic is still shaky and uncertain while you search for funding. Next, you start with a cluster of brainstormed ideas, which you have to try and guide through the iGEM process to end up with a fully developed project. Once the project is chosen, team members get assigned to areas where they excel, and milestones are set.

After the exams, when we can step foot in the lab, phase two of the iGEM cycle gets launched. The project is designed further into detail, initial results get obtained after an immense amount of troubleshooting. This often leads to full or partial redesigning of the iGEM project, after which troubleshooting continues. You dive into human practices, education, and communication to bring the project outside of the lab and share the possibilities of synthetic biology with the world. Information from these adventures gets applied back into the lab. Luckily, we often have a group of experts at our disposal who provide us with much-needed experimental and mental health support.

After endless days and nights in the lab, and sharing the project with the outside world, we switch from executing the project to documenting all our accomplishments in the wiki. It is difficult to let the work go, while so many good ideas are being generated in your head. But the finish line is coming closer. Stress starts to run even higher until the wiki and presentation video is uploaded and we can breathe again. Now there’s the judging session and the Giant (online) Jamboree. Here we can defend our project and meet other teams. Stories are exchanged and you learn that we were all in it together and a lot of the issues seem to be similar between the teams.

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Figure 1: Alternative iGEM cycle - Adapted from iGEM Foundation [1]

For us, this process diverges from the traditional iGEM cycle due to our university’s examination period in June. Though our brainstorming was complete, our wet lab work started much later compared to other iGEM teams. Additionally, we have a long re-examination period in August. This meant multiple team members were less available during that time, unsettling the iGEM process even further. Naturally, there are ways to deal with these hurdles. Setting up the lab, working out the experiment plan in detail, and initiating outreach activities that need little follow-up in the short term are some options.

The iGEM experience is very educational, intense, and overwhelming. We learned a lot from this experience, and it would be a waste not to pass on our knowledge on teamwork, project development, and organization. We hope that future iGEM teams can look at these tips and experiences to smoothen out their process.

The iGEM experience is very educational, intense, and overwhelming. We learned a lot from this experience, and it would be a waste not to pass on our knowledge on teamwork, project development, and organization. We hope that future iGEM teams can look at these tips and experiences to smoothen out their process.


  1. Make sure you have a clear team structure, there is no way of understating this. A project often stands or falls with a clearly defined team structure where every member knows what is expected of them. The team captain should be responsible for good communication between and within subteams. They should also keep an eye on deadlines and competition requirements. The subteam leaders are responsible for communication with each other, and for the organization of their subteam. For example, during a WetLab meeting on a particularly cloudy Sunday, the subteam leader and the Wet Lab members decided (sadly) on a deadline for all lab experiments. Through this structure, you make sure every task gets completed, ensure an overview of running projects and responsibilities are divided over the whole team.
  2. Make sure to recruit team members with graphical design, coding, and video editing skills. Preferably more than one to make sure those time-consuming tasks are divided equally and don’t rely on one person.
  3. Try to set fixed in-person meetings, both for the whole team and for the subteams. The structure will help to create a healthy work environment where everyone is up-to-date and it helps to maintain the work pace. These meetings are the perfect opportunity to explain what you have been doing, what you will do, and where you need help.
  4. The team captain and subteam captains should always prepare for their meetings. During the iGEM cycle, a lot of meetings will have to take place. Thus, making them as efficient as possible will increase the enthusiasm and motivation significantly.
  5. Do not take teambuilding lightly. A team where all the members know each other has a lower barrier to contact one another for both iGEM content and personal issues, which increases productivity and team spirit.
  6. Work together in person as much as possible. Working isolated is very inefficient and it becomes difficult to build on each other’s work. Most of us noticed during the COVID-19 that loneliness is hard on your mental health and demotivating, so build each other up by physically working together.
  7. Never have one person be fully responsible for a big project. If this person for any reason is unable to continue, this can have grave consequences.
  8. Mental health and checking in on each other are invaluable during an intense iGEM season. More on this below and on the “Mental health awareness” page on our wiki.


  1. Start from the beginning with a clear file organization structure and document every step of your work in text and figures. Box for general files and Benchling for lab notebooks are good examples. This will save you a lot of work when wiki writing. You cannot possibly recall every detail afterward and going on a hunt for files is frustrating, especially in a team.
  2. Use a communication platform that offers different channels to divide up discussions. This way you can easily maintain an overview and there is no overload of irrelevant information. One example of this is Slack.
  3. Create a shared calendar with meetings, events, and deadlines. This is the ideal way to avoid miscommunication. It only works when all the information is there: location, Zoom link, correct times, etc.
  4. By making detailed availability sheets, it is possible to predict how much work every member can get done the following week.

Project Development

  1. During the brainstorming phase, everyone must come prepared and have worked out an idea beforehand. This way you avoid wasting precious time and create a productive meeting.
  2. Try to choose a project for where there is expertise at your university. Involve your team PI during the brainstorming phase so he can immediately give feedback on how realistic the project is within the iGEM time frame.
  3. It might also be a good idea to initially recruit a smaller iGEM team to brainstorm with and then hire more members tailored to your chosen project.
  4. Make a timeline and set yourselves clear deadlines, this way you avoid being overwhelmed in the end because you spread it out as much as possible and everyone knows what to expect.
  5. Go over the medal requirements at the start of phase two in the iGEM cycle. This way you avoid having to make up new projects to meet certain requirements last minute.
  6. Try to have a clear project plan ready before the summer for all subteams. That way you can start working efficiently immediately when summer starts.
  7. Try to work together with or stay in contact with the previous iGEM teams from your university. They might have multiple ideas that they were unable to achieve due to time constraints which can be a valuable inspiration.
  8. Take any opportunity to work together with other (iGEM) teams and/or organizations. With combined resources, efforts, and ideas you can create wonderful projects that can reach far and wide. Additionally, you can learn from each other's management styles, organization, and much more.

Mental Health in iGEM

One of our big projects is the mental health awareness week. Not only did we notice in our own team that participating in an iGEM project can be challenging for your own mental health, but we also received the same message from numerous members from other iGEM teams.

Mental Health is a hot topic. The media uses problematic frames that don’t represent the full truth [2]. Conceptions that mental health problems stem from a lack of self-control, that a person with a mental health condition is a weak link in a group and that mental illness is like a monster that takes over control of the person are very common. These frames can be compensated by using counter-frames, where mental health is understood similar to other diseases like a broken leg and is often caused by external factors. A person is more than their mental illness and has to be seen as a mosaic of traits. These are all aspects that have to be taken into consideration when talking about mental health in your iGEM team. We think it is crucial to create an open atmosphere where members can share their experiences. One way to make sure everyone on the team feels well is to do regulate check-ups with each individual person. This can either be done by the team leader or by another designated member.

“We all have mental health. Mental health is not only about disease or the absence of it. It is also about wellbeing and experiencing positive emotions: it is about us, our lives, work, relationships, physical health, and social environment.” [3]. Mental health can contribute to absenteeism, lack of motivation, and a decrease in team spirit. This is why, especially in periods with a high workload and stress (for example before the wiki week), open communication is crucial to show team members that they are not alone in their struggles. Since you will be working together very closely with your team, checking in on each other will not only benefit you personally but the entire team.


[1] iGEM Foundation. (n.d.). iGEM cycle [Illustration].

[2] Tegenbos, G., & Van Gorp, B. (2019). Zeven Adviezen om Anders Te Communiceren over Geestelijke Gezondheid. Koning Boudewijnstichting. Retrieved October 21, 2021, from

[3] Brogan, C. (2021, May 12). Mental Health & Work. Mental Health Europe. Retrieved October 21, 2021, from