Monday, September 15, 2008

io9 Announces the Winners of their Mad Synthetic Biologist Contest

io9 has announced the winners of their "mad science" contest, in which the contestants were asked to build an improved life form "using MIT's registry of standard biological parts known as "biobricks," or by using other scientifically plausible materials."

The winner in the biobricks lifeform category was Vijaykumar S. Meli, who is a grad student at the National Institute for Plant Genome Research at JNU Campus in \ New Delhi, India. Not surprisingly, he proposed a novel method of modifying plants using a an engineered form of rhizobium bacteria, which normally creates nodules in the roots of legumes, allowing them to process nitrogen from the air more efficiently. That ability to fix nitrogen is a reason why legumes are often planted in rotation with other crops. What Meli has proposed is bioengineering the rhizobium so that they can form similar nodules on the roots of rice. The ability to more effectively use nitrogen would allow the rice farmers to use less fertilizer. That would help both the farmers' wallets and the environment. What's especially cool is that the bacteria could be engineered in a laboratory today. Read his paper.

In the "general synthetic lifeform" category, the winner was UK resident Elliot Gresswell. Gresswell's entry is written as a fictionalized series of lab notebook entries describing the development of "semi-sapient Blue Forests".
Note to Dante down at the Vegetation and Environ Section- we’re really not interested in anything that even resembles a Triffid. No, we don’t care how tasty and delicious they are when boiled. No plants that prey on humans.
Those scientists are so picky! What they started out with was engineeered single-celled microbes that are tethered together into a sort of goo - the final result was a blob-like creature called the Blue Goo. Combine that with some modified hybrid corn-spider plants and some venus fly traps and the result is a moving blue forest. Coming soon to a lagoon near you! Gresswell won a gorgeous drawing of his creation by comic book artist Kevin O'Neill. Read the full entry and see the full-size version of the illustration.

Be sure to check out the entries of the runners-up as well. If this contest is any sign, there may be some nifty new life forms appearing in the next few years.

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