Build-a-Genome Course Introduces Students to Synthetic Biology

Jef Boeke pic

Jef Boeke

Currently instructing students and directing curriculum at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City, Johns Hopkins professor emeritus Jef Boeke served more than 27 years with the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine (JHUSOM). In 2007, Jef Boeke became a founding director of the JHUSOM Build-a-Genome course, simultaneously spearheading the Build-a-Genome Mentor program and also developing the Build-a-Genome Parts Library course.

Sponsored by the JHUSOM and three other Johns Hopkins departments, Build-a-Genome also draws upon support from other biotechnology research organizations and institutions of higher learning. The course introduces students to the nascent field of synthetic biology through intensive laboratory work, and also exposes them to larger societal issues associated with emerging technologies.

Offered each semester and during the summer, the Build-a-Genome course attracts undergraduates from a range of academic fields, including biology, biomedical engineering, chemical and bio-molecular engineering, computer science, and biophysics. Students begin in a “boot camp phase, where they learn the workflows of the course. Eventually granting students 24-hour access to the lab, instructors assign each of them a specific segment of the synthetic yeast genome. Working an average of 15 to 20 hours a week, students must completely synthesize their genome segments and deliver accurate DNA results by the end of the semester.


The Institute for Systems Genetics at NYU’s Langone Medical Center

Institute for Systems Genetics pic

Institute for Systems Genetics

Jef Boeke is an accomplished molecular and genomic biologist, geneticist, and university professor, who founded the Institute for Systems Genetics at New York University’s Langone Medical Center in 2014. Jef Boeke’s goal as the director is to make the Institute one of the world’s leading centers of modern genetic research.

The Institute for Systems Genetics (ISG) takes an integrated approach to bringing diverse research talents, ranging from computational biologists to human organism geneticists, under one organizational umbrella. The Institute also welcomes technology developers and scientists with an engineering approach to the discipline.

A number of papers have been published about research conducted at the ISG over the past two years, including Dr. Boeke’s “Much Ado about Zero,” which examines a newly revealed open reading frame related to an emerging retrotransposon gene that may be able to be fused to adjacent host sequences, and to adopt various fates.

In addition, the ISG sponsors events on such leading-edge topics as “Genetic Architecture of Human Disease in Light of Evolution and Function.” The Institute for Systems Genetics is currently engaged in a faculty search for assistant professors.

CPNAS Explores the Relationship between Culture and Science

Cultural Programs of the National Academy of Sciences  pic

Cultural Programs of the National Academy of Sciences

Experienced educator and geneticist Dr. Jef Boeke works as a professor at NYU School of Medicine and leads as the founding director of the Institute for Systems Genetics at the NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City. In recognition of his accomplishments, Dr. Jef Boeke has earned induction into three national academies, including the prestigious National Academy of Sciences.

In addition to overseeing activities aimed at providing the nation with independent, objective guidance on scientific and technological matters, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) conducts its diverse Cultural Programs initiative in an effort to highlight the relationship between culture and science. Through permanent and rotating art exhibits, theatrical readings, lectures, and other public events, Cultural Programs of the National Academy of Sciences (CPNAS) showcases interdisciplinary projects and helps communicate the history of science to NAS visitors.

Currently, CPNAS is showing several exhibitions, including Sentient Chamber, an interactive architectural installation that reacts to the presence of visitors through effects of light and sound. Created with the help of architects, engineers, scientists, and artists, the interdisciplinary exhibit opened on November 2, 2015, and will be on display at the NAS building in Washington, DC, until May 31, 2016.

As with other CPNAS exhibitions and events, Sentient Chamber is open to the public free of charge. For more information about it and/or CPNAS, visit

A Brief Introduction to the Dobro Resonator Guitar

Dobro Guitar pic

Dobro Guitar

An accomplished researcher with decades of experience in genetics and molecular biology, Dr. Jef Boeke serves as the founding director of the Institute for Systems Genetics at the NYU Langone Medical Center. In his free time, Dr. Jef Boeke enjoys being outdoors, spending time with his family, and playing the Dobro. Jef Boeke has played the Dobro in the Celtic-bluegrass fusion trio, the Southern Blots, for over 35 years. The Southern Bltos’ album can be heard on

Most often played in bluegrass, country, and blues music, the Dobro is a type of acoustic guitar featuring a conical metal resonator that amplifies the instrument’s sound and gives it a unique metallic timbre. Although many use the term Dobro for all resonator guitars, the name technically refers to a trademark that has roots in the early history of the instrument.

Now owned by the Gibson Guitar Corporation, the Dobro trademark was secured by the Dopyera brothers, who launched the Dobro Manufacturing Company in 1928. The Dopyera family continued to manufacture resonator guitars off and on for several decades, and the name Dobro was eventually acquired by Gibson in 1993. Since then, Gibson has released several resonator-style models with the Dobro name, including the more affordable Hound Dog series, which is available through Epiphone, a Gibson subsidiary.

An Introduction to Transposons

Transposons pic


A longtime molecular biology and genetics researcher, Dr. Jef Boeke currently works as a professor and director at the NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City. Throughout his career, Dr. Jef Boeke has conducted a large quantity of research on mobile genetic elements, commonly referred to as transposons.

At the most basic level, a transposon is a sequence of DNA that can “jump” from one section of the genome to another. Jef Boeke’s research focuses on the study of a specific type of transposon called a retrotransposon which “jumps” by producing an RNA molecule as a template for new DNA synthesis, and then copying that RNA with an enzyme called reverse transcriptase to make a new DNA copy, which is then inserted back into the genome. Thus its life cycle can be summarized as DNA > RNA > DNA, similar to the life cycle of retroviruses like human immunodeficiency virus or HIV-1. Retrotransposons make up approximately half of the human genome and up to 90 percent of other genomes in the living world. Many transposon and retrotransposon copies are silent, in that they produce no phenotypic effect as a product of their translocation.

If a transposon lands in the middle of a gene, it can produce a mutation and have a destructive effect. However, transposons may also play a useful role. In addition to producing new combinations of nucleic acid sequences and driving genome evolution, transposons can facilitate the shuffling of exons and help repair damage to the DNA double helix.

Nature Conservancy Welcomes Donations of Stock Holdings

Nature Conservancy pic

Nature Conservancy

A leading genetics researcher at the NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City, Dr. Jef Boeke philanthropically supports the efforts of the Nature Conservancy, a national nonprofit dedicated to protecting ecologically important lands and waters. Thanks to the support of donors such as Dr. Jef Boeke, the Nature Conservancy has protected thousands of miles of rivers and more than 119 million acres of land.

The Nature Conservancy welcomes contributions in many different forms, including stock holdings. After a donor transfers securities to the Nature Conservancy, the organization sells the securities and uses the proceeds from the transaction to fund its many programs. Donors receive an income tax deduction based on the fair market value of the securities sold and pay no capital gains tax on their donations. Donors also have the option of directing their contributions toward a specific program or fund.

To learn more about donating stock holdings to the Nature Conservancy, visit

Synthetic biology news: THC from yeast


First it was poppies and their opioids, now marijuana and THC. I’m excited to see this boon in synthetic biology, as researchers borrow enzymes and pathways from the plant kingdom and transform yeast into microscopic drug factories. Last month, scientists made headlines when they completed the first opioid synthesis in yeast. Now, researchers have published that they have engineered yeast to produce the active ingredient from marijuana, called tetrahydrocannabinol or THC. Together, the two discoveries illustrate both the utility of synthetic biology in the drug market – and the current challenges facing the field.

With numerous states across the country legalizing marijuana, THC is in high demand. Beyond recreational use, people are advocating the drug for a myriad of medicinal properties – from treating glaucoma to controlling epileptic seizures. But most of these studies were small and not well controlled. And even when there is an effect, it is often unclear if the results are due to THC or some other compounds in the marijuana plant.

So scientists have again turned to yeast for a purer and more reliable source of the drug. Yeast also offer additional advantages over their plant counterparts: in theory at least, the drugs should be easier and more cost-effective to produce in fermentation vats with simple sugars for food rather than vast fields that are subject to the whims of Mother Nature.

But it isn’t quite that simple. As with opioid production, THC synthesis is so far not very productive, generating just miniscule amounts of the drugs. And, in the case of THC, yeast need to be fed a chemical precursor to produce the drug rather than using simple sugars. Of course, there are also debates about the safety of drug production in such an easy-to-use organism – might it some day be possible to homebrew THC beer?

To be honest, I don’t think so. Scientists are very cautious about inserting safeguards (like chemical dependencies) into yeast strains to ensure that drug production occurs only in proper lab settings. But beyond that, I am confident that researchers will be able to overcome the current challenges facing synthetic biology – like low yields and the need for precursor chemicals. I’m excited to see what comes next!