Probiotics Could Soon Let You Know If You Have Cancer–From The Color Of Your Pee

We can now program bacteria to find tumors, live in them, and then make your urine glow.

Tal Danino, a postdoc in synthetic biology at MIT, has come up with a new way to detect liver cancer: by changing the color of urine.


Danino, a TED Fellow, recently presented his new research at the TED Conference in Vancouver. “We can program bacteria like computers,” he says. “It’s like writing software. We can print and write DNA into different programs and algorithms inside bacteria.”

Danino has come up with a genetic program that instructs bacteria to produce large quantities of fluorescent proteins. Bacteria naturally grow inside tumors, which makes them an ideal entrypoint for cancer detection.

When orally delivered to mice, Danino found that probiotic bacteria–the healthy kind of bacteria that you ingest with yogurt–will selectively grow inside liver tumors. “I realized I could get bacteria to produce a signal detectable in the urine,” he says.

Danino programmed the probiotics to change molecules in the tumor so that the color of urine is altered when liver cancer is present–and eventually, he believes that bacteria localized to tumors can treat cancer by producing therapeutic molecules.

“Imagine in the future taking programmed probiotic that could prevent and treat cancer,” he says.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.