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CH25: Tal Danino

The bioengineer who programs DNA to fight cancer

Programming bacteria to sniff out and treat cancer. It may sound like something out of the future, but it’s exactly what Tal Danino is doing right now. A bioengineer, TED Fellow and postdoctoral fellow at MIT, Danino specializes in manipulating the DNA of probiotics to turn them into a diagnostic and treatment tool. “What we can do inside the lab is use machines that print different DNA sequences,” he explains.

Those sequences encode for a functional behavior in the bacteria, like diagnosing liver cancer. Probiotic bacteria are introduced orally, and if they encounter tumors, release an enzyme that turns the urine purple. Cancer spotted. But the implications don’t stop at diagnosis. “Imagine if the bacteria… made other enzymes and other small molecules that are known to kill cancer cells,” he says. Danino is on the leading edge of this application-based approach to programming life. “People are just learning how to program these organisms,” he notes. Plus, it’s become drastically cheaper in the last decade. And as costs drop, innovation explodes. “It’s the most exciting time,” he says, “Because we’re right at the point where we’re exponentially increasing what we can do.”

Get the full story on Danino’s bioengineering projects in his CH25 profile.

Illustration by Jason Ratliff, images courtesy of Tal Danino


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