Photo of Danielle Mai

Biotechnology & medicine

Danielle Mai

Using proteins from whooping cough to bioengineer new material that functions like human skin and muscle.

Year Honored

Stanford University


Can the bacteria responsible for a highly contagious respiratory infection also be the key to engineering lifelike soft tissue? Danielle Mai, 34, thinks so. Her Stanford University lab is using proteins from pertussis, or whooping cough, to bioengineer new material that functions like human skin and muscle.

During an internship with the Rogers Corporation, a maker of engineered materials, Mai began working with protein-based polymers, which are large chain-like molecules that serve as building blocks for many types of organisms. That work quickly became her passion.

By identifying naturally occurring proteins and then reproducing them within her lab, Mai can engineer biopolymers that mimic the properties and functions of human muscles, especially their ability to stretch and contract—attributes that have been difficult to harness in engineered tissue thus far. Bacteria like pertussis, she says, are a perfect model because they have highly repetitive protein sequences, which are easy to mimic.

“Naturally occurring proteins have amazing functionality along with these beautiful, built-in molecular sequences that have allowed them to survive in harsh environments for billions of years” says Mai. “We can take that functionality and build it into engineered materials.”

Mai envisions multiple applications for these new biopolymers, including soft robotics, regenerative medicine, and sustainably produced animal-free meat.