We love to quiz kids on what they want to be when they grow up, but these days, it’s not exactly a fair question. By some estimates, up to 65 percent of grade-schoolers will ultimately have jobs that don’t exist today. How do young people prepare for a constantly evolving marketplace? “That’s a tough one,” says Jef D. Boeke, PhD, director of the Institute for Systems Genetics at NYU Langone Health.
Dr. Boeke himself is a pioneer in a field that barely existed two decades ago: synthetic biology, an emerging discipline employing industrial robots and computers to reengineer DNA in living organisms. The potential applications are vast—everything from manufacturing new medicine and producing biofuels to cleaning up hazardous waste and advancing our understanding of genetics. But as a kid, Dr. Boeke had his heart set on becoming a scuba diver. “I read all the magazines, memorized the decompression tables, and even bought all the gear,” he recalls. So he was crushed when, in high school, he flunked an open-water certification exam because of a “tooth squeeze,” an excruciating toothache induced by pressure changes. “It was one of the great disappointments of my life,” he says.
He reoriented and, in college, gravitated toward biochemistry, where he began experimenting with chemical approaches to manipulating DNA. Fast-forward to the present, and Dr. Boeke now belongs to an elite international corps of synthetic biologists (“engineers trapped in the bodies of geneticists,” as he says) working together to build a multicellular organism from the ground up, starting with the 16 chromosomes in baker’s yeast. In 2017, Dr. Boeke’s team graced the cover of Science with a historic package of papers documenting their progress: six fully reengineered yeast chromosomes so far.
30,000: The number of genetic experiments that can be run daily—with 100 percent accuracy—in the GenomeFoundry@ISG thanks to robots. That’s 10 times the number humans can handle.
His state-of-the-art laboratory, called the GenomeFoundry@ISG, wouldn’t run without Andrew Martin, a scientific technologist. Part lab manager, part MacGyver, Martin not only specs out all the rarified equipment needed to splice, dice, and analyze DNA with factory-like efficiency, but he also serves as the resident troubleshooter. “People come to me all the time and ask, ‘Hey, can you fix this or that?’” says Martin. “I love it.”
Beyond that, he finds the lab’s fast-paced progress thrilling. “Researchers used to be able to manipulate 1, 2, maybe 10 genes at a time,” Martin explains. “At the Genome Foundry, they can work on thousands of genes at once. The robots free up scientists to use more of their brains and less of their hands.”