Tiny organisms, huge amounts of data

Gianni Panagiotou is Professor of ’Microbiome Dynamics’ since 6 JanuGianni Panagiotou is Professor of ’Microbiome Dynamics’ since 6 January 2023. Image: privat

Gianni Panagiotou has been Professor of "Microbiome Dynamics" at Friedrich Schiller University Jena since the beginning of the year. With his research at the Cluster of Excellence "Balance of the Microverse", he supports the consortium’s project to understand microbiomes holistically and to identify patterns that determine the balance of microbial communities.

Microbiomes are interconnected communities consisting of tiny organisms, such as bacteria and fungi. Moreover, they are everywhere: on and in humans, animals, and plants, but water bodies and other ecosystems are also home to these diverse single-celled organisms. In order to study microbial communities in their complexity, large data sets need to be analyzed and processed. In this area, the Cluster of Excellence "Balance of the Microverse" now receives reinforcement by the newly appointed Professor Gianni Panagiotou.

Systems biologist with international experience

The systems biologist first studied chemical engineering at the National Technical University in Athens before earning his doctorate there. His further path took him via Denmark to Hong Kong - where he is still an honorary professor - and finally to the Leibniz Institute for Natural Product Research and Infection Biology (Leibniz-HKI) in Jena. "As a classically trained chemical engineer, I was trained to solve problems by applying the principles of chemistry, biology, physics and mathematics to different systems. But there is no other system as fascinating and complex as the human microbiome to put this knowledge into practice with unprecedented impact on human health," Panagiotou says of the motives that led him to his current research field.

Panagiotou researches microbial communities, with a particular focus on the human gut microbiome. "We integrate microbiome, mycobiome and metaomics data with biochemical and clinical data, construct state-of-the-art genome-scale metabolic models, and apply machine learning methods to understand the dynamics between the host and its associated bacteria and fungi," says the 48-year-old. In his new environment at the Microverse Cluster, Panagiotou will support and advance the research of various research groups in the cluster.

How microorganisms influence health

In doing so, he can already build on several years of collaborations: Panagiotou has headed the "Systems Biology and Bioinformatics" research group at the Leibniz Institute for Natural Product Research and Infection Biology (Leibniz-HKI) for six years, which now also bears the title "Microbiome Dynamics." The group uses systems biology and bioinformatics methods to investigate how microorganisms influence health. For example, the team developed a machine learning model to predict non-alcoholic fatty liver disease using the gut microbiome. In addition, Panagiotou and his team are dedicated to environmental metagenomics, which means they study samples taken directly from the environment: They analyzed the microbiome composition of sediments in coastal areas in Hong Kong to understand the effect of chemical pollution over these marine ecosystems.

But Panagiotou has a much bigger goal in mind: "We aim to develop novel interventions for the personalized prevention and treatment of globally significant diseases such as metabolic diseases, infections, sepsis and cancer. This is only possible in close collaboration with clinicians, microbiologists and biochemists. Thus, the Microverse Cluster offers us an optimal environment," says the new professor.