Biomedical Engineer Tal Danino Wins an NSF CAREER Award

Danino plans to engineer bacterial swarming that is controlled by novel gene circuits to generate macroscopic patterns

Mar 08 2019 | By Holly Evarts


Tal Danino, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, has won a National Science Foundation CAREER Award for his work in the emerging field of synthetic biology. One of the highest recognitions for young faculty at or near the beginning of their careers, the five-year, $500,000 award will support his project, “Engineering Bacteria Swarming for Biotechnology.”

Engineering coordinated cellular behavior has long been a goal for synthetic biologists because it is key to directing gene expression and population dynamics for a wide range of biotechnological applications. For his NSF project, Danino plans to engineer bacterial swarming that is controlled by novel gene circuits to generate macroscopic patterns, with the ultimate goal of creating a spatially encoded biosensor.

The biosensor will record exposure to a prescribed signal as periodic rings—like the rings in a tree—that will be produced at the scale of a Petri dish and thus large enough to be seen easily without any additional technology. Danino is looking specifically to create new genetic circuits to control swarming-based patterns of E. coli formation and new synthetic biology tools for soil bacteria, both areas that have not yet been explored by synthetic biologists.

“We hope to establish a hybrid computational-experimental framework to engineer microbial gene circuits that generate tunable, macroscopic patterns on solid agar,” says Danino. “If we are successful, our approach could be used for a range of health applications, including detecting toxins and parasites in low-resource areas.”

Danino, who is also a member of the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center and of the Data Science Institute, designs new genetic circuits and microbial therapeutics that are inspired by native biological systems. A major thrust of his Synthetic Biological Systems Lab has been on engineering bacteria to detect and treat cancer by building gene circuits that enable bacteria to communicate, reproduce, and express molecules inside tumors. The lab uses an approach that includes in silico mathematical and computational modeling, in vitro characterization and novel platform development, and in vivo models of cancer.

“My goal is to focus specifically on the prevention, detection, and treatment of disease,” he notes. “I’ve been focused on cancer thus far, and, with this NSF award, I’m excited to extend our efforts to new diseases and health issues such as infection, gastrointestinal disorders, and pollutants that affect human health.”

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