iGEM 2021 Safety and Security Grant

This year, iGEM’s Safety and Security Program will award up to 5 grants of $5000 each to teams who wish to work on technical advances in biosafety and biosecurity.

At iGEM, we don’t see safety and security as just a set of rules to follow or a list of dangers to avoid. Rather, we think you can’t know whether you’re engineering biology to be good for the world if you haven’t thought about engineering it to be safe.

But... how, exactly, should you go about engineering it to be safe? How can you creatively accelerate the evolution of synthetic biology towards benefits and away from risks? This is the kind of thorny technical challenge that iGEM teams excel at!

To encourage iGEM 2021 teams to take on this challenge, iGEM’s Safety and Security Program offered 5 grants of $5000 each to accelerate technical progress in biosafety and biosecurity!

2021 Safety and Security Grant Recipients

Through a competitive application process, we selected 5 teams based on how well their proposal advanced applied biosafety and biosecurity, how realistic their approach was, and the extent to which the grant would enable work that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. Here are the winning teams:


From a community lab in Nairobi, Kenya

This team is developing a user-friendly home biosensor for local waterborne diseases. The grant will support containment strategies for their biosensor, either by implementing it as a cell-free system or by introducing a multi-layered kill switch. The team will also upgrade the laboratory in which they are working with new equipment, including new safety equipment.


Sofia University and the Technical University of Sofia in Sofia, Bulgaria

This team is using wastewater metagenomics to characterize the genetic determinants of antibiotic resistance. They plan to synthesize some of the novel resistance factors found in their metagenomic data and test them in E. coli. The grant will support their work to run those tests with a re-engineered stop codon, preventing potential environmental escape of these novel factors.


Korea University in Seoul, Korea

This team is building upon work by UFlorida 2017 to treat chytridiomycosis, a fungal disease harming amphibians around the world. To prevent unintended environmental spread of their fungicidal bacteria, the team plans to test a quorum-sensing-based kill switch, or to place fungicide production under an inducer that responds to molecules on the amphibian’s skin. The grant will support purchasing reagents for fluorescence-based cell counting to empirically characterize the efficacy of the kill switch.


Center for Research and Interdisciplinarity (CRI) in Paris, France

This team is working on minicells for cheap and safe in-house enzyme production in low- and middle-income countries. They will run experiments to characterize their ability to produce minicells, and the ability of the minicells to produce their target enzyme (Taq polymerase). The grant will support these experiments, as well as efforts to replicate their pilot hardware and distribute these models to several countries to test the reproducibility of their results.


University of Maryland in College Park, USA

This team will follow protocols from the Purdue 2016 team to encapsulate their phosphorus biosensor and reclamation system in a xerogel silica bead. The grant will support a number of experiments: empirically measuring the escape rate of their engineered E. coli from the beads, testing different promoters to selectively release phosphorus from the reclamation system, and engineering auxotrophic dependence into the E. coli to lower the escape rate.

Biosafety experiments performed by team NUS-Singapore-A in 2018

What kinds of technical progress do we want to fund?

  • Developing countermeasures for biosecurity vulnerabilities identified by your team (example: the biosecurity software developed by Lethbridge 2017 to make DNA screening robust to genetic recoding)
  • Designing safer alternatives for common synthetic biology methods (example: the antibiotic-free screening method developed by IIT-Madras 2011)
  • Characterizing potential environmental impacts if synthetic biology products were brought outside the lab (example: tests by NUS Singapore-A 2018 to ensure their biosynthetic dye didn’t contain any living organisms)
  • Developing and/or characterizing biocontainment approaches (example: the three-tier containment approach designed by Paris-Bettencourt 2012 prevent horizontal gene transfer)
  • Empirically examining the safety of your team's design decisions (example: tests by Aachen 2015 to validate the use of their sensor hardware in biosafety level 1)

This is, of course, not an exhaustive list: we want to see your innovative ideas!

Have questions? Please contact safety AT igem DOT org.

With thanks to Open Philanthropy