Jörn Piel, Ph.D.

ETH Zürich


Marine sponges and identification of the chemical factors produced by host-associated bacteria using techniques that help to pinpoint these molecules to their producers and to understand their functions.

Jörn Piel, Ph.D.

Research Description

Sponges are one of the oldest existing groups of multicellular animals. They form intimate associations with bacteria that likely contribute to their remarkable evolutionary success, for example by producing defensive chemicals that protect sponges from being eaten or overgrown.

Our laboratory investigates molecules, producers and mechanisms that are important in sponge-microbe interactions. Sponge bacteria can vary from few different members to spectacular consortia comprising a major portion of the sponge biomass, and many of the relevant bacteria can currently not be grown in the laboratory. By developing and applying methods from chemistry, synthetic biology, metagenomics and single-cell analysis we aim to contribute to a better functional understanding of these fascinating but elusive communities.

Research Impact

Research on marine microbiomes has generated a wealth of sequencing data, but experimentally validated knowledge on bacterial functions remains scarce. For marine sponges, the data suggest that bacterial bioactive substances are widely used for defense and colonization in this ancient animal group. For this award, my research is expected to change the way we think about the role of chemistry in the formation and persistence of symbioses and to generate new approaches for studying the chemical ecology of organisms that are otherwise unculturable.


related links

Science Symbiosis in Aquatic Systems ETH Zurich Foundation Back


  • Diploma, Chemistry, University of Bonn, Germany
  • Ph.D., Chemistry, University of Bonn, Germany
  • Postdoctoral study, Molecular Biology, University of Washington, USA