Politicians may be worried about the dangers of scientists "playing god" with genetic experimentation, but we want biology to be brazen. We're rooting for mad scientists with homebrew closet labs, grassroots geneticists, and garage genome hackers — because they're the researchers most likely to change the world. And so, almost three months ago, io9 announced the world's first "mad science" contest, named after the kind of hero who keeps pursuing scientific innovation against all odds. Our contestants were asked to build a real lifeform using MIT's registry of standard biological parts known as "biobricks," or by using other scientifically plausible materials. And now, without further ado, we bring you the winners. The winner in our biobricks lifeform category is Vijaykumar Meli, who invented a form of rhizobial bacteria that forms a symbiosis with the root systems of rice plants to help them process nitrogen more efficiently. This is an actual, viable lifeform that can be created in the lab using current genetic engineering techniques. As the winner, he'll get an all-expenses paid trip to Hong Kong to attend the fourth annual Synthetic Biology conference with leading researchers in the field. Read Meli's winning entry. The winner in the "general synthetic lifeform" category is Elliott Gresswell, whose lifeform, a carnivorous, water-going tree called "Blue Forest," was drawn by renowned comic book artist Kevin O'Neill ("League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" and "Nemesis the Warlock"). You can see that drawing above. Though Gresswell's edible, ambulatory forest can't be created with current technology, our judges thought it could inspire new inventions in the future. Read Gresswell's winning entry. We had so many terrific entries that we wanted to share a few of our runners-up with you too. Biobricks Lifeform Runner Up #1 Catherine Aull developed a biological counter that can count in binary. She also impressed our judges tremendously with her lab, which is located in a tiny closet in her apartment. Her entry was partially synthesized in that closet lab (you can see pictures of the lab in her paper). Biobricks Lifeform Runner Up #2 Jonathan Cline, a software engineer, developed a biological breathalyzer system made of bacteria. Instead of measuring alcohol levels, however, his system measures the metabolic state of "ketosis" in a person's body - this is the state where the body starts burning fat and turning it into energy. Ketosis is induced by the Atkins diet as well as caloric restriction. General Synthetic Lifeform Runner Up #1 Rizgar Mella, a physics student, developed a software-controlled lifeform. General Synthetic Lifeform Runner Up #2 Naor Livne designed a parasite our judges dubbed "Spliterphage" and it has one of the weirdest sexual reproduction cycles you've ever read about. Our judges came from fields as diverse as synthetic biology and videogame design: Stanford synthetic biologist Drew Endy, who helped create biobricks; UC Berkeley biology researcher Terry Johnson (who writes io9's "ask a biogeek" column); Spore game developer Jason Shankel; and UC Berkeley geneticist Michael B. Eisen, co-founder of the Public Library of Science. Of the contest, Eisen said:
People have been dreaming about what new life forms might look like and do for ever. What I loved about this contest - and the Blue Forest in particular - was that it inspired people to apply the same creative spirit to imagine how we might actually create them.
It was incredibly fun to explore the thoughtfulness and creativity of the entered designs. There's a lot of work still to do in order to make biology easy to engineer, and to make real the constructive promises, both old and new, of biotechnology. Sharing, competing, and working together via well-intentioned competition helps more people to consider, participate, and guide the process.
Artificial life is the new frontier of engineering. If Leonardo da Vinci were alive today, this is what he would be working on. And who knows? One or two breakthroughs and he may be alive again sooner than we think.