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Laureate of the 2013 ATIP Avenir program


Bacteria put to use in medical diagnoses 

By manipulating the natural detection mechanisms of bacteria, synthetic biology experts are developing an early diagnosis tool for diabetes.

Live cells are tiny machines with virtually limitless capacities. Synthetic biology suggestsputting them to use. Supported by the Bettencourt Schueller Foundation, Jérôme Bonnet has created a team in Montpellier to apply nanoengineering principles to medical screening.

Diabetes is a fast-growing disease that is likely to impact more than 400 million people worldwide by 2030. An early diagnosis of its complications, based on a series of biomarkers, enables more effective treatment. However, current tests are both complex and expensive. Jérôme Bonnet’s idea is to take Bacillus subtilis, a harmless bacterium, and transform it so that it can detect biomarkers and respond by emitting a conspicuous dye.

Bacteria are attractive candidates for this kind of project. Besides being cheap and easy to grow, they are naturally endowed with the ability to detect and respond to complex environmental signals.

Jérôme Bonnet’s pilot application is diabetic nephropathy, a common diabetic complication and the leading cause of kidney transplants. The field opened by bacterium-mediated diagnosis could be applied to a wide range of pathologies.


After earning his PhD in Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Montpellier, Jérôme Bonnet left for California, where his postdoctoral work at Stanford enabled him to focus on an emerging field, synthetic biology. Under the supervision of Dr. Drew Endy, one of the pioneers of the discipline, he designed, built and characterized the genetic circuits that enable live cells to write, store and signal cell division events – true in vivo computation. The young researcher made several breakthroughs in the field, notably by creating the first device for storing rewritable DNA.

Jérôme Bonnet is currently focusing on the use of synthetic biology for medical care. His project for the early diagnosis of diabetes was already the focus of a year’s preliminary research at Stanford. In collaboration with the SysDiag-CNRS laboratory in Montpellier, he encoded sensors in bacteria for detecting glucose and nitric oxide in urine samples. With the ATIP-Avenir team, Jérôme Bonnet would like to build sensors for a wide range of additional markers of diabetes.


  • 2007PhD in Molecular and Cellular Biology, University of Montpellier (France)
  • 2008 - 2013Postdoctoral fellowship, Stanford University, California (United States)
  • 2009Co-leader of the winning project in the Health and Medicine category, iGem competition
  • 2012Collaborative Grant, France-Stanford Center for Interdisciplinary Studies
  • 2013Laureate of the ATIP-Avenir program with the support of the Bettencourt Schueller Foundation