Pena is professor of biochemistry at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (UFMG) in Brazil, where he graduated in medicine in 1970. He became a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Canada in pediatrics in 1975 and obtained his PhD in human genetics at the University of Manitoba in 1977. He is member of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences and received the Great-Cross of the National Order of Scientific Merit of Brazil in 2006. is currently a member of the National Council of Science and Technnology of Brazil. Among other honours, he was awarded the 2007 TWAS Prize in Medical Sciences. He was president of the Brazilian Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and member of the Council of the Human Genome Organization (HUGO). He created and directs the Danilo Pena Foundation, which grants scholarships to poor students with high intellectual potential.