Safety Policies

On this page you will find iGEM's positions on: Do not release, Human experimentation, Human subjects research, Gene drives Anti-microbial resistance, Use of animals, and Deletion as modifications

As it is at the forefront of what is technologically possible, iGEM also comes across important policy issues on a continuing basis. In 2019 iGEM has clarified its positions on the topics below.

Safety note

Failure to meet any of these requirements and policies can lead to immediate disqualification from the competition and referral to the Responsible Conduct Committee.

Do Not Release Policy

iGEM teams often do projects that have an immediate practical application. But within the context of the iGEM competition, wet-lab projects should remain at an experimental stage. iGEM teams should not release or deploy any genetically modified organisms, or the products of genetically modified organisms, outside the lab.

For more details, please visit our Do Not Release Page.

No human experimentation

iGEM projects are meant to remain at the experimental stage. Testing your product on humans (including yourselves) is strictly prohibited. It is considered a breach of the Do Not Release policy.

Engineered organisms you make, or their products, should not come into direct contact with humans. If you can demonstrate something you have produced has no modified organisms on or in it, then a waiver may be possible. Please contact safety AT igem DOT org setting out what you would like to do, and why you believe that there will be no modified organisms present. You need permission from the Safety and Security Committee before any of your product comes into contact with humans.

In the past, some teams have wanted to use samples from humans (swabs, feaces, blood, etc.). This is possible but must comply with both institutional/national rules and iGEM's safety and security rules and policies. A team wanting to use specimens from humans would need to provide evidence of relevant institutional or national reviews. In accordance with the White List, a team would also need to submit a Check-In Form to the Safety and Security Committee before using human samples. The Safety and Security Committee are unlikely to grant permission to use samples from vulnerable populations (such as minors/children, prisoners, pregnant women or fetuses).

For the purposes of iGEM, human experimentation includes but is not limited to the unique contributions of an individual including , blood, DNA, other bodily specimens, and health and psychological outcomes.

Human experimentation can also include contributions of knowledge such as collecting information or data from humans through surveys, interviews, or other means. This type of work is covered in the next section on human subjects research outside of biomedical research.

Human subjects research

(surveys, interviews and other types of engagements) outside of biomedical research

There are many ways that you need to be careful with how you interact with humans in your project even if you are not collecting or experimenting with biomedical samples from humans. iGEM teams often engage with communities to understand broader social concerns, much of which involves talking with people, collecting information, analyzing it, and presenting it before judges at the Jamboree and on your wikis. This type of human subjects research is social science research.

In many cases social science research (such as surveys and data collection from interviews) requires pre-approval from review boards at your local institution, and must comply with national guidelines. This oversight is designed to ensure ethical conduct, including issues such as privacy, voluntary participation, informed consent and protection of vulnerable populations.

It is iGEM’s policy that all human subjects research conducted by teams must be done in accordance with that team’s institutional and national guidelines, and teams must demonstrate their awareness of these guidelines and their adherence to them. Teams are reminded they must attest to compliance via their safety forms.

Copies of national guidelines, for many countries, may be found here ⇗. Many universities have an internal “Institutional Review Board” (IRB) or “Research Ethics Committee” (REC) that is responsible for approving human subjects research at that institution. Because of the time it can take to fill out forms and receive IRB/REC approval (often weeks or months), teams are strongly advised to begin the approval process as soon as possible.

Demonstration of adherence to institutional policies should be seen as minimum requirements, and we expect teams to go above and beyond in demonstrating their commitments to responsible and ethical conduct. For example, for teams that do not have established review committees at their institutions (e.g. some community lab teams), we expect them to consult with the international and national policies and other resources and experts linked on the Safety Hub and Human Practices Hub (see the ‘How to Succeed’ section of the Hub).

Gene drives

Policy discussions around gene drives center around whether they should be released into the environment and under what safety provisions should research be carried out. iGEM has a strict Do Not Release policy – this applies to gene drives as well as any other projects. On the use of gene drives as research tools in iGEM projects, the policy is:

Gene Drives are not allowed in iGEM projects without a special exception from the Safety Committee.

Teams will need to convince the Safety Committee that:

  • There will be no environmental release - This is existing iGEM policy for all projects and not just on gene drives.
  • That the project is safe - iGEM has adopted an adaptive risk management ⇗ approach for gene drives. The Safety Committee will evaluate your project proposals with reference to host organism (chassis), modifications (including any associated parts) and containment measures. Teams should make use of the published Framework for the Risk Assessment and Management of Gene Drive Technology in Contained Use ⇗.
  • Your team is implementing and adhering to the measures proposed by Akbari et al ⇗ in “Safeguarding gene drive experiments in the laboratory”
  • Your team has notified the Safety Committee that you are considering or planning to use gene drives in your project and you and your faculty advisor have participated in a mandatory conference call with experts on drives and on safeguards.
  • Any orders for commercially produced genetic material placed by your team must be screened for regulated sequences.
  • None of your parts submitted to the registry contain a functional gene drive – a drive in a single part will not be accepted and this can have implications for medal criteria.

The purpose of a gene drive is to bias the inheritance frequency of a genetic marker in an organism’s progeny. For the purposes of iGEM a gene drive includes a gene or genes for recombinases or endonucleases (such as Cas9, Cpf1 ⇗, HEG, TALEN, ZFN ⇗) site-specifically integrated into the genome of a eukaryotic organism. These must be accompanied by a mechanism, such as a guide RNA ⇗ (gRNA) in the case of Cas9, directing their site specificity if this is not already inherent in the protein sequence (as in the case of a ZFN). The recombinase or endonuclease used may be Cas9, Cas12a/Cpf1, or any other engineered or natural variant. All organisms capable of sexual reproduction are included. This also encompasses organisms such as yeast which reproduce mainly asexually (see exclusions below).


  • Genomic integration must be specific to the site targeted ⇗ by the endonuclease, or a reasonable chance must exist for this to occur. Random insertion of the endonuclease (for example by lentiviral vector) does not constitute a gene drive.
  • Work in somatic cell lines (i.e. non-germline) that are unable to reproduce sexually or evolve into the organism they are derived from is excluded. Examples of somatic cell lines include HEK293 and BV-2.

Further reading

Anti-microbial resistance (AMR)

Resistance to important drugs is an increasing challenge to human and animal health. It has led to high level discussions ⇗ at the United Nations General Assembly, a commitment ⇗ to address this issue by world leaders and an action plan ⇗ from the World Health Organization. As part of its commitment to safe and responsible research and innovation, iGEM has clarified its position on this important issue.

iGEM recognises that some AMR-related sequences are common research tools, including some of great public health importance. For example, several of the antimicrobials on the World Health Organization's list of Critically Important Antimicrobials ⇗ are also common research tools. iGEM also recognises that there are risks that scientific or engineering activities, in not being carried out responsibly, could increase resistance to these important medical countermeasures. iGEM is committed to enabling the most exciting and important science and engineering, whilst managing associated risks. As a result, iGEM is working to minimise its use of resistance factors for antimicrobials of critical importance to public health. iGEM is reviewing the use of resistance factors in parts used in the competition. iGEM will continue to accept AMR-related parts into the Registry, but any part containing sequences connected resistance to anti-microbials on WHO's list will be flagged. Such parts will not be included in the distribution kit and explicit permission for use from iGEM (via a Check-In Form - for an example of how to fill in these forms have a look at how team 2018 Nottingham filled out theirs for catP gene from Clostridium perfringens) will be required to get access to the part. To get permission, the Safety and Security Committee will evaluate the project proposals with reference to host organism (chassis), modifications (including any associated parts) and containment measures.

Use of animals in iGEM projects

Different parts of the world have different governance measures for the oversight of use of animals in research. Relevant values are not universal and regulatory oversight measures may not be present. As an international competition, iGEM teams come from many different regulatory environments. As the projects attempted by teams becomes more sophisticated and accomplish more, there is an increasing focus on demonstrating a proof of concept. In recent years, a growing number of teams have used animal in their projects.

iGEM is clarifying its position on the use of animals in projects:

  • Consistent with the safety and security rules, teams planning to use any multicellular organisms (animals, plants, insects, etc.) not on the White List need permission from the Safety and Security Committee. Teams should submit a Check-In Form before using any plant or animal to tell us about any risks associated with your work and how you will be managing them.

  • Teams planning to use vertebrates (e.g. rats, mice, guinea pigs, hamsters), or higher order invertebrates (e.g. cuttlefish, octopus, squid, lobster, or social insects such as bees or American or German cockroaches) must also submit an Animal Use Form to tell us about why you need to use them. (You will still need to submit a Check-In Form to tell us about any risks associated with your work and how you will be managing them.)

For the purposes of iGEM, use of animals includes using noninvasive and invasive experimentation with live animals, animal food studies, and any procedure resulting in the death of an animal, or harvesting any part of animal for study. Any part of an animal acquired through a third party must also be approved by the reviewing committee.

In addition to any institutional or national approvals required for the use of animals, teams will need to persuade the Safety and Security Committee of their need to use animals by using the Animal Use Form. Teams will need to make a case based on the three R's ⇗:

  1. Replace – whenever possible alternatives to animal models should be used. Teams must be ready to explain why no alternative approaches were possible.
  2. Reduce – if animals are to be used, the fewest possible needed to accomplish the goal of the research should be used. Teams must show they are using the appropriate number of animals to power their study.
  3. Refine – animal research must use methods that minimize or alleviate pain, suffering or distress and enhance animal welfare. This includes appropriate housing, environment, stimulation, and feeding of animals.

All teams wanting to use vertebrates (e.g. rats, mice, guinea pigs, hamsters), or higher order invertebrates (e.g. cuttlefish, octopus, squid, lobster) in their project must explain in detail how they have addressed the 3Rs. One easy way to do that is to use the Experimental Design Assistant ⇗ made available by the UK National Centre for the 3Rs. This is a free online tool designed "to guide researchers through the design of their experiments, helping to ensure that they use the minimum number of animals consistent with their scientific objectives, methods to reduce subjective bias, and appropriate statistical analysis". Teams will need to upload the diagram report made by the tool in the Animal Use Form. Teams will also be asked to upload any approval paperwork and evidence of institutional review by an animal use committee (e.g. Institutional Animal Use and Care Committee in the US or China, or Ethics Advisory Board in the European Union).

To help make the case for using animals, teams should look carefully at the Key Concepts ⇗ in the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals produced by the US National Academies of Science (also available in Chinese ⇗. There are also lots of different online resources ⇗ made available by the UK National Centre for the 3Rs. There are also new guidelines ⇗ for ethical review of animal welfare in China. We have also provided an example of a complete and compelling animal use form.

Further reading

Deletions as modification

Some regulators around the world have concluded that deleting sequences from an organism does not result in a modified organism. Other regulators do consider these techniques to result in a modified organism. For the purposes of iGEM, and in particular for the Do Not Release policy, iGEM considers any alteration to a sequence (including deletion) to be covered by its safety rules.