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Happy World Microbiome Day! - Interview with Gianni Panagiotou

Gianni Panagiotou

We are excited to feature an insightful interview with Gianni Panagiotou, a core Professor in the Cluster of Excellence "Balance of the Microverse" at the Friedrich-Schiller-University Jena and head of the Microbiome Dynamics Department (MBD) at Leibniz-HKI, celebrate World Microbiome Day.

This year's theme, "Feed your microbes - How diet shapes your gut microbiome" perfectly aligns with Gianni Panagiotou's research. At MBD, scientists explore how our diet affects the trillions of microorganisms in our gut microbiome, which play essential roles in digestion, immune system training, and overall health.

Gianni Panagiotou's recent studies highlight how a diet high in resistant starch can alter the gut microbiome, leading to improved health outcomes for conditions like Metabolic Dysfunction-associated Steatotic Liver Disease (MASLD) and obesity. In this interview, Gianni Panagiotou will shed light on his current projects and their implications for personalized nutrition and public health.

Can you explain how a diet high in resistant starch can alter the gut microbiome to improve health outcomes for patients with Metabolic Dysfunction-associated Steatotic Liver Disease (MASLD)?

Resistant starch is a type of prebiotic, which is a food either promotes the growth of beneficial gut microorganisms or reduce the amount of pathogenic species. There are different types of resistant starch, but the one we investigated is present in unripe bananas or raw potatoes.

In the case of MASLD, we found that consuming a diet supplemented with resistant starch in a form of a powder changes the composition of the gut microbiome in a good way. We were particularly surprised by the reduction of a single species, Bacteroides stercoris, when patients followed the resistant starch diet. We could show that reducing the amount of Bacteroides stercoris in the gut improves the gut barrier integrity and leads to less inflammation and fat accumulation in the liver. We have some evidence that suggests this could be happening via alteration of the levels of specific amino acids produced by the gut microbiome, which in turn benefits liver health.

How does the gut microbiome's response to diet vary among individuals, and what challenges does this pose for developing personalized nutrition plans?

Several foods are generally considered healthy, but what may surprise many is that a great part of these benefits comes from the byproducts produced once the gut microbiome has fermented them. However, not every person has the same gut microbiome composition, so not everyone processes food in the same way. The problem with this variation is that not all diets considered “healthy” have the same impact on each person’s health. We now know that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all diet. Scientists in the field of microbiome research are now trying to develop personalized nutrition plans that better account for the specific needs of each person’s gut microorganisms. This is not an easy task, but we are making progress.

What are the most exciting potential applications of your research on diet-gut microbiome interaction maps for both healthy and sick individuals?

We have been working very hard to understand the complex relationship between diet, the gut microbiome, and health outcomes because we are convinced this is essential to developing personalized nutritional plans. Our approach to this complex task was to link micronutrients derived from plant-based foods with the microorganisms' enzymes that can modify them. In other words, we created diet-gut microbiome interaction maps for healthy and sick individuals. We found several interesting things, and we are really looking forward to soon sharing our results with the public.

One of the critical aspects of our research is that we not only generated these general interaction maps but also focused on specific species that could be essential for the biotransformation of food with a positive influence on health. A potential application of our research could be to provide the scientific basis for developing new generations of highly nutritional foods, prebiotics, probiotics, and postbiotics.

There is still a long way to go, but it is very exciting to think that our results could help create foods and supplements specially designed to improve health by working in harmony with each person's unique gut microbiome.