Michael J. Ziller: Exploring the molecular pathways of complex diseases – basic research on schizophrenia

Introducing the research group leader supported by BMBF funding

June 03, 2016

Michael J. Ziller studies diseases that are caused by the complex interplay of many genetic alterations and environmental influences, such as schizophrenia. Our understanding of the molecular origin and progression of these diseases is still very limited – a situation Ziller and his team would like to change. In January 2016, Ziller started up his own research group at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry. Within the context of the research funding line: “e-Med – Measures for Establishing Systems Medicine”, the award-winning junior scientist has been granted 1.2 Million Euros from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). This grant will be used to analyze the genetic basis of schizophrenia over the course of the next 5 years.

Michael J. Ziller, showed an early interest in interdisciplinary research at the interface of informatics, biology, physics and medicine. Justifying his career choice, Ziller explains “For me, this was never just a technically abstract perception, I have always seen the connection to human beings.” After completing his studies in bioinformatics and physics in Tübingen, Ziller moved to the USA. There he joined the Harvard Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology and one of the world’s best research institutions, the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. During the following six years of his PhD and postdoctoral work in Cambridge, Ziller pursued research in the fields of stem cell research, epigenetics and genomics, publishing his results in numerous internationally well-renowned journals.

After his dissertation in 2014 and the completion of a short postdoc in the laboratory of Alex Meissner at Harvard University, Ziller turned back to Germany, attracted by the excellent working conditions, the various research options and the close collaboration with the clinic that the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry could offer him. “Here, I can do translational work and the Max Planck Institute provides the best infrastructure for research – that’s why I came back to Germany.” Ziller explains. Heading the “Lab for Genomics of Complex Diseases”, he intends to develop system genomic approaches in order to analyze the genetic and epigenetic architecture of complex (disease) phenotypes by using in vitro differentiation models of human pluripotent cells. Ziller summarizes, “Our research focuses on the question: how do many genetic and environmental risk factors act in concert to create a permissive molecular environment that fosters the emergence of psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia.” The hypothesis behind this, is that the pathology of schizophrenia is in part driven by the interplay of many genetic variants disrupting numerous gene regulating elements (GREs) in neuronal cell populations.

With a prevalence of about one percent of the population, schizophrenia is one of the most devastating diseases of the nervous system. The high heritability (~80%) of the disorder enables us to find suitable approaches for studying its biology. Genome-wide association studies have identified thousands of genetic variants associated with schizophrenia.

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