A computational biology graduate from Carnegie Mellon, Judy’s work to engineer microbes involves computers as much as test tubes. She is exploring ways to modify DNA to make new organisms capable of meeting specific industrial and medical needs. For example, she envisions making microbes that could consume oil spilled in shipping accidents, or that could produce biofuels, or that could work in the bloodstream of diabetics to produce insulin. These applications have yet to be realized. One class of challenges that scientists have met involves the production of high-value chemicals in yeast. Judy explains: “A commercial example developed in one of Berkeley’s bioengineering labs is an anti-malarial drug. Lab production of the drug in yeast is more reliable than extracting it from natural Wormwood, which has a long growing season.”
Her goal is to engineer microbes in the same way we engineer an airplane. “I build a computer model of a useful microbe and test it under simulated conditions, then make the microbe according to computer predictions and test its performance on tasks of interest in the lab,” Judy says. “The lab results improve the computer model, and the cycle of simulation and testing continues till we get it right. The challenge is to find enough level of detail for the computer model. Cells are very complex and often poorly understood.” Judy’s work will help advance the tools and foundations of biology as an engineering discipline. Applications will evolve as the field matures, much as early experiments with transistors morphed into the sophisticated computers we use today.
“What I look forward to most is meeting and learning from the bold, creative scientists that make up the Hertz Community.”