io9’s maddest scientists of 2008

Blue Forest
Kevin O’Neill posed its readers a challenge a few months back: design a synthetic lifeform using BioBricks. They didn’t want another Spore creature – it had to be something biologically plausible, and preferably, functional. The question: would those readers voluntarily do the equivalent of biochem lab homework?

The answer appears to be heck, yes. The winner, nerd overachiever Vijaykumar Meli, proposed a modified rhizobial bacterium capable of invading rice roots, conferring nitrogen fixation capability on the plant and significantly reducing its need for fertilizer. He definitely gets an A.

Not to be outdone, first runner-up Katherine Aull built a prototype of her project, a simple binary biological counter, for under $500 – in her closet:

Katherine Aull’s closet biolab

Despite the bacteria growing in it, Katherine’s closet is STILL cleaner than mine. Damn.

Although io9 called this a “mad scientist” competition, the three winning BioBricks lifeforms (the rhizobial bacteria, binary counter, and a biological breathalyzer for ketosis) are both plausible and purposeful – hardly what you’d call “mad” (although turning your closet into a lab. . . maybe a little mad. In a good way).

But in the second half of the contest, the synthetic lifeforms got more speculative, suitable for assembly by (definitely mad) bioengineers of the future. Runner-up Noar Livne imagined an organism with three sexes and a totally wacky life cycle (“Don’t ask me why anyone would want to create this thing, the name of the contest is mad science contest isn’t it?”).

Winner Elliot Gresswell conceived a short piece of science fiction about a carnivorous, singing, peripatetic forest. In addition to $1000, Gresswell won an illustration of his creature by comic-book artist Kevin O’Neill. io9 notes, “We have been trying to get in touch with Gresswell to give him his prize, but he seems not to be answering email. Hopefully he hasn’t been experimenting with nano-fed forests and been turned into tree fodder. So Elliott, if you’re reading this, do get in touch.”

Yeah, well, Elliott may not have wifi in his workshop. . .



  1. #1 floatingrunner
    September 19, 2008

    guess those bio-hazard (resident evil), the happening, movie lessons don’t really help that maybe it’s a good idea just to NOT create creatures? ;p (j/k)

    speaking of which, have you read any of them imaginary space books (eg galactic geographic 3003) that introduces off-world species? know any?

  2. #2 Jessica Palmer
    September 26, 2008

    I haven’t been keeping up on SF at all lately, Im sorry to admit. But I think one of the best series I ever read dealing with alien species, and the difficulty of grokking alien cultures and biology, was the Uplift series – I think by David Brin?

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