Category Archives: Fellows Talks Talks from Fellows.

Physical therapy is boring — play a game instead: Cosmin Mihalu

Physical therapy can be painful, confusing and boring. Romanian physical therapy entrepreneur Cosmin Mihaiu has set out to change all that. In this talk, filmed at TED2015, he demonstrates a fun, cheap solution that turns physical therapy exercises into a video game with crystal-clear instructions. Running on a PC with a Kinect controller, MIRA Rehab’s fun-to-play games lead patients of all ages through therapy-specific exercises, while allowing physical therapists to monitor recovery.



TED Fellow Tal Danino programs bacteria to detect and treat cancer – and make art

Above, watch Tal Danino’s TED Talk, “We can use bacteria to detect cancer (and maybe treat it).”

Did you know that bacteria can be programmed as though they were computers? Bioengineer and artist Tal Danino is working out how to instruct bacteria to enter cancerous tumors — where it can detect and treat the disease noninvasively. And when Danino isn’t tinkering with bacteria’s healing potential, he makes artwork with it.

With Danino’s TED talk recently posted, he tells the TED Blog more about bacteria and how the artistic process drives his scientific research.

Tell us about your work in studying and programming bacteria.

There are two really interesting aspects to this. The first is that there’s this entire universe of bacteria inside of you, and in the last five to ten years, there’s been a revolution in figuring out what your microbiome does. It’s a really big part of your identity as well as a part of how you respond to and digest foods, how you develop certain diseases, allergies, and so on. Historically, we’ve thought of bacteria in a negative light and have and worked to maintain sterile environments. Now a lot of the recent research suggests we’ve been too sterile — and that disorders such as allergies, diabetes and obesity are connected to our microbiome. We’ve realized that basically the bacteria in our bodies are usually good, and that they’re a very important part of our health.

Do we know exactly why bacteria are so important to our health?

We don’t yet. We know a lot, and every week we find out a new fact. For example, we now know that the way that you were delivered when you were born — whether it was by caesarian section or traditionally — affects frequency of allergies, or that if you take antibiotics often in the early years of your life it can affect health processes down the road, such as development of asthma. If you grew up with a dog, for example, studies have shown you are less likely to develop allergies or asthma, because dogs can spread bacteria around that develop the immune system and help it to mature when you’re younger.

In my work, we are not only recognizing the importance of bacteria, but we are changing them. There’s this whole other revolution in which we are learning how to program life, similar to how we program computers.

Our technology has reached a point where we can write DNA like we would computer code. As a grad student, I started genetically programming bacteria to talk to each other, and to produce synchronized patterns. Then, as a postdoc, as this bacterial revolution was happening, I began to think about how we can program bacteria in our bodies. That’s when I started to develop bacteria to detect and treat cancer.

Above, watch “Supernova” — a video of bacteria growing a microfluidic device. Through a genetic program, Danino has created synchronized oscillations that you can see because of fluorescent proteins. Taken from Danino et al. Nature 2010

How does one program bacteria? What does this mean?

What we’re doing is modifying the DNA of bacteria. Without getting into technical detail, we have machines that can print out the letters of DNA, like A-T-G-C, and we’ve studied what sequences produce what function for quite some time. So for instance, there is a specific string of 500 letters or so that produces a purple-colored molecule. I print and cut-and-paste these DNA sequences, and put them into bacteria to instruct them to do certain things. In this case, I instruct the bacteria to make a purple molecule if they come into contact and grow within cancer cells, and the color is visible in urine, creating a noninvasive way to detect the disease.  We’ve also been using this technique to program bacteria to make molecules that treat cancer, causing the tumors to shrink or slow in growth. Researchers like me are thinking, “What can we program bacteria to do if they find a tumor?” We’ve been working on these ideas in mice with liver cancer.

What bacteria do you use to detect and treat cancer? Are there cancer-causing bacteria that you target?

Except for a few really specific cases, there’s not really a bacterium that causes cancer, so whatever bacteria we use simply need to be able to colonize the body’s tumors — we can use E. coliSalmonella, and so on, bacteria that will thrive in anyone’s body. In fact, we’ve also been using probiotic bacteria, or ‘good’ bacteria — like those in yogurt  — for these tasks.  So imagine in the future eating a programmed probiotic that could detect and treat cancer, or even other diseases. That’s the goal of my research.

A pattern made of liver cells. From the Colonies series, a collaboration with Vik Muniz. Image: Vik Munoz

A pattern made of liver cells. From the Colonies series, a collaboration with Vik Muniz. Image: Vik Munoz

How do the programmed bacteria find the tumors?

If you deliver bacteria orally or via the blood, they land in all of the various organs in your body, as well as in tumors. Normally your immune system is really good at clearing out bacteria, but in cancerous tumors, there’s a weird area called the necrotic core where bacteria can hide because the immune system can’t get in there, and so the bacteria will just happily grow in these tumors.

This was something that people observed maybe 150 years ago, a random interesting fact. The story behind it was that a woman who had a tumor in her neck came into the hospital, and when she got a bacterial infection, her tumor stopped growing. It was the very first time it was observed that bacteria and tumors have this cool interaction.

But it wasn’t really considered safe to treat tumors with bacteria, and we didn’t know how to manipulate bacteria at the time. Today, we are able to program bacteria to be safe — so you won’t actually become infected with E. coli — and program them to do things they don’t normally do.

Why do you use bacteria to make art?

The art I do highlights the science I do in a very different way. I recently did a collaboration with an artist named Anicka Yi. It came out of a conversation where I was telling her about how there are 10 times more bacterial cells in the body than human cells — that’s interesting fact number one. Interesting fact number two is that there are 100 times more bacterial genes. So really, in terms of genetic material, we’re 1% human. The bacteria in your body are a really large and unique part of your identity.

Anicka was interested in doing a piece on how art and bacteria relate to feminism in expressing a woman as a female pathogen or a viral concept. In the project that evolved, she collected bacterial samples from 100 women, and I grew them on petri dishes for a month or two. The exhibit consisted of these petri dishes — bacterial portraits, in a way — as well as a giant petri dish that was 7 feet long, made entirely out of bacteria from all these women, spelling out the name of the show. As bacteria are also responsible for scents, you could smell it as you walked in.

A 7-foot-long petri dish spelling out the name of exhibition You Can Call Me F, a collboration between Tal Danino and Anicka Yi. Photo: Tal Danino

A 7-foot-long petri dish spelling out the name of exhibition You Can Call Me F, a collboration between Tal Danino and Anicka Yi. Photo: Tal Danino


To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>>







How I fell in love with quasars, blazars and our incredible universe: Jedidah Isler

Jedidah Isler first fell in love with the night sky as a little girl. Now she’s an astrophysicist who studies supermassive hyperactive black holes. In a charming talk, she takes us trillions of kilometers from Earth to introduce us to objects that can be 1 to 10 billion times the mass of the sun — and which shoot powerful jet streams of particles in our direction.

How to control someone else’s arm with your brain: Greg Gage

Greg Gage is on a mission to make brain science accessible to all. In this fun, kind of creepy demo, the neuroscientist and TED Senior Fellow uses a simple, inexpensive DIY kit to take away the free will of an audience member. It’s not a parlor trick; it actually works. You have to see it to believe it.

Gage and his team at Backyard Brains create tools to help teaches kids and amateurs neuroscience through hands-on experiments. Next, watch his TED Talk demonstrating how brains communicate electric impulses – with the help of a live cockroach.

5 ways to kill your dreams: Bel Pesce

We all want to invent that game-changing product, launch that successful company, write that best-selling book. Yet so few of us actually do it. In this recently released talk — which has already almost hit a million views — Brazilian entrepreneur Bel Pesce breaks down five easy-to-believe myths that ensure your dream projects will never come to fruition.

The day I stood up alone: Boniface Mwangi

Photographer Boniface Mwangi wanted to protest against corruption in his home country of Kenya. So he made a plan: He and some friends would stand up and heckle during a public mass meeting. But when the moment came, he stood alone. What happened next, he says, showed him who he truly was. As he says, “There are two most powerful days in your life. The day you are born, and the day you discover why.” Warning: this talk contains graphic images.

To delve into Mwangi’s story more deeply, read this full-length interview: “Why I chose to stand up, alone“.


There’s a better way to die, and architecture can help: Alison Killing

In this short, provocative talk, architect Alison Killing looks at buildings where death and dying happen — cemeteries, hospitals, homes. The way we die is changing, and, she argues, maybe the way we build for dying should too. Listen to this fascinating take on a hidden aspect of our cities and lives, and to learn more about Killing and her work, read “Design for dying: Alison Killing on the architecture of death” on the TED Blog.

How to go to space, without having to go to space: Angelo Vermeulen

“We will start inhabiting outer space,” says Angelo Vermeulen, crew commander of a NASA-funded Mars simulation. “It might take 50 years or it might take 500 years, but it’s going to happen.” In this charming talk, the TED Senior Fellow describes some of his official work to make sure humans are prepared for life in deep space … and shares a fascinating art project in which he challenged people worldwide to design homes we might live in there.

Want to know more about Vermeulen and his work? Read “Spatzle in space” – a full-length interview with the space systems researcher, biologist, artist and community organizer about his HI-SEAS adventures – on the TED Blog >>>



For these women, reading is a daring act: Laura Boushnak

In some parts of the world, half of the women lack basic reading and writing skills. The reasons vary, but in many cases, literacy isn’t valued by fathers, husbands, even mothers. Kuwaiti-born photographer and TED Fellow Laura Boushnak traveled to countries including Yemen, Egypt and Tunisia to document some of the women — schoolgirls, political activists, 60-year-old moms — who are fighting cultural odds for the sake of education. Listen to Boushnak’s talk, then see a gallery of her images on the TED Ideas Blog >>>

For more tolerance, we need more… tourism? Aziz Abu Sarah

Aziz Abu Sarah is a Palestinian activist and cultural educator with an unusual approach to peace-keeping: tourism. In this talk, Sarah tells of how years ago, his older brother was arrested on charges of throwing stones, was beaten — and died of his injuries. Sarah grew up angry, bitter and wanting revenge. But later in life, coming face-to-face with Jewish people, Sarah realized the “enemy” were ordinary human beings who share his love of the small things in life – food, music, culture. He founded MEJDI Tours to send tourists to Jerusalem with two guides, one Jewish and one Palestinian, each offering a different history and narrative of the city. If more of the world’s 1 billion tourists were to engage with real people living real lives, argues Sarah, it would be a powerful force for shattering stereotypes, while promote understanding, friendship and peace.

For more from Abu Sarah, read his piece on the TED Ideas Blog, “What to do when your government collapses.”