Build a Lifeform contest -- winner goes to synthetic biology conference in HK

io9's Annalee Newitz sez, "io9 is sponsoring a 'build a lifeform' contest. Entrants will have to design a lifeform that can actually be built in a lab right now, and one winner will get an all-expenses-paid trip to the Synthetic Biology Conference in Hong Kong. We want to encourage mad science and synthetic biology! Judges include MIT's Drew Endy, UC Berkeley's Michael Eisen, and Spore game developer Jason Shankel. " Link (Thanks Annalee!)


  1. Having done a bit of this stuff (and attended the conferences in 2004 and 2005), it’s a lot harder than it looks; “can conceivably create in the lab” and “actually works, without weird random shit going wrong” aren’t even on speaking terms. While I have a lot of respect for Profs. Endy and Eisen, I’m of the opinion that this work won’t eventually lead to new forms of computation; biological computers need to be evolved, not designed.

    And if you think I’m kidding about random weird things going wrong, actually read that paper about the Burnt Pancake Problem. Their design had one gene, one regulatory region, and three translocation sequences (which they actually did a pretty good job creating; those sequences will be useful for future research); though elegant and clean on paper, the design didn’t actually work in vivo. Biology is weird, and trying to apply computational metaphors without translation (as BioBricks has the tendency to do) often results in nonfunctioning systems.

    Having said that, you guys have fun designing stuff; just know your designs are as close to biology as a Turing machine description is to a collection of NAND gates. NAND gates connected by salt water drizzled on paper.

  2. So, can I export the data from my Spore creature creator directly to DNA?

  3. I can build a lifeform in a lab. Or anywhere else, really. Takes about nine months to build, though. And I’ll need a lab partner.

  4. ha ha, yeah. i saw the headline and the first thing that popped into my head was that EA/Spore must have their tentacles in here someplace.

  5. Sorry I killed the discussion there, guys…I mean, I’m fairly pessimistic about synthetic biology, but I spent two years trying to construct a simple genetic circuit to no avail, so I have a somewhat personal stake in this.

  6. I want a puppy-sized cthulhu. You know, just big enough to lay waste to H0 scale cities. Awwww…

  7. @1 – Yes, there’s an analogy. Viruses, system crashes, malware…

    @3 – hehe, maybe more like systems biology. ^_^

    Sorry I killed the discussion there, guys…I mean, I’m fairly pessimistic about synthetic biology, but I spent two years trying to construct a simple genetic circuit to no avail, so I have a somewhat personal stake in this.

    Yeah, synthetic biology in the BioBrick sense always came across as too “unnatural” to me, so I didn’t bother to pursue it. I’m more interested in harnessing how nature’s evolved solutions to these problems work, rather than trying to invent our own separate and incompatible version thereof.

  8. @#12: To be honest, I’m less interested in how nature evolved solutions to problems than in how we can also evolve solutions to problems. If you want a protein to recognize a specific target, it’s frankly probably easier to just throw a bunch of E. coli in a pot with that compound and see what happens than it is to worry about protein folding, quaternary structure, etc. As for more complex systems, finding an evolutionary screen is hard, but that’s the only way you can hope to get the beautiful regulatory cascades found in nature.

    (Incidentally, this is a great argument against intelligent design creationism: “Seriously, intelligently designing complex systems? Fucking impossible. If God had any brains at all, he’d use evolution and save himself some time.”)

  9. I disagree Zuzu, enzymes and equipment useful for synthetic biology still cost a lot. $140 is quite a lot of money to lay down for an enzyme you can’t use again.

  10. @#14: True, and even “standard” lab equipment like a -80 C freezer and various incubators aren’t exactly available at Costco. And many labs use expensive-but-time-saving prep kits; doing it the long way (especially if one is untrained) is likely to lead to foul-ups. (And not the “oops I’ve created Colizilla” type of foul-up, the “why isn’t this growing/where’d my DNA go” type of foul-up.)

  11. Getting -80 C temperatures and building incubators isn’t that hard, you just buy a couple peltier coolers off ebay. But now that you mention Costco it shouldn’t be to hard to modify a toaster oven to do incubation. It’s the enzymes that really kill it for amateurs.

Comments are closed.