Meet FEMS Delegate Gianfranco Donelli – Italian Society of Microbiology

30-10-19 Carianne Buurmeijer

We interviewed FEMS delegate of the Italian Society of Microbiology (SIM) and Director of the Microbial Biofilm Laboratory at the Fondazione Santa Lucia IRCCS, Rome, Italy.

Could you tell us about SIM and its goals?

The origins of the SIM can be found in the establishment of the Italian Section of the International Society of Microbiology that occurred in 1929 in Perugia, where more than 130 hygienists, pathologists, microbiologists, immunologists and veterinarians assembled to discuss the opportunity to create a scientific Italian association bringing together researchers interested in the microbial world. Even if this first meeting, followed by many others in the years, before and after the 2nd World War, can be considered the first SIM congress, the legal birthday of the Society must be traced back to the memorandum of association dated April 2, 1962.

Yearly, a national congress is held by the Society, with the involvement in the scientific organization of one or more academic chairs of microbiology belonging to different Italian universities. As a rule, these congresses have to cover in separate sessions the main branches of microbiology including bacteriology, mycology, parasitology and virology.

In the programme of the plenary sessions are usually selected emerging topics in any field of basic and applied microbiology, in order to attract the common interest of microbiologists working in different research areas. Joint sessions, planned in collaboration with other national and international societies involved in microbiology, have been also frequently organized during the annual congresses, often with the participation of foreign scientists. The SIM is affiliated to ESCMID and FEMS.”

What does it mean to you to be a part of the FEMS community?

As delegate of the Italian Society of Microbiology (SIM) I’m active in FEMS since 2003 when I had the honor to sign the European Declaration for Microbiology formally presented by FEMS during the specific ceremony held in Ljubljana on June 30, 2003, in the occasion of the First Congress for European Microbiologists.

Starting from this special event, the belonging to the FEMS community gave me the chance to offer my long experience at scientific and organizing level in numerous occasions during the following years. In fact, in 2009 and 2012, I was unanimously elected twice for three years as representative of all national delegates in the FEMS Meeting Organizing Board, so contributing to the organization of the 5th, 6th and 7th FEMS Congresses, held in Leipzig (2013), in Maastricht (2015) and in Valencia (2017), respectively.

Furthermore, I was invited to serve as Co-Editor of the FEMS Immunology and Medical Microbiology Thematic Issues titled “Biofilms” and Biofilms II”, published in 2010 and 2012, respectively. Being part of the FEMS community has also meant to me the opportunity to intensify contacts between SIM and the other affiliated microbiological societies, to promote and facilitate training and specialization stages for young Italian researchers in highly qualified European laboratories, to obtain FEMS grants for the organization of congresses and courses in Italy and for the participation of selected young researchers in these events.”

What have been SIM’s most important achievements or milestones?

In the last few years SIM has greatly increased the services offered to its Membership via dedicated courses in addition to the annual scientific congress, managing the active participation of members to Working Groups covering the most important research areas of basic and applied microbiology and advising national, regional and local authorities and institutions for the organization of initiatives of microbiological interest in the field of public health.

The Society has also been able to provide expert advice to national health authorities on relevant issues of public health: e.g. vaccines, alarming clusters of cases of meningitidis in young adults, antimicrobial resistance. Finally, a milestone for SIM is the increasing commitment to implement the principles contained in the European Declaration for Microbiology signed in 2003.”

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing microbiologists today? And how do you think that SIM and FEMS can work together in tackling these?

Even if in the last decades a large number of microbial species have been deeply investigated, they represent “a drop in the ocean” of the estimated thousands of species inhabiting the environment and the human and animal gut. Thus, one of the major challenges for microbiologists is currently to investigate this unseen majority of living matter to better fight against patogens and exploit beneficial microorganisms.

A further pivotal point is represented by the quite recent awareness that microorganisms are social beings that live, reproduce, communicate and work all together, attached to any kind of inanimate or biological surfaces and spatially growing in complex communities known as microbial biofilms. On the light of this new “sessile vision” of the microbial world, microbiologists must do all the needed efforts to adapt and re-interpret the findings achieved on microbes in the “planktonic era” of microbiology.

As a third target, microbiologists need to reflect seriously on the nonsense therapeutic strategy carried on up today to protect human and animal beings from the attacks of microbial pathogens. In fact, the more we use antibiotics, the more quickly bacteria will develop resistance to them and most of infection-causing bacteria can become resistant to at least some antibiotics. Thus, instead to develop new antibiotics it would be safer and more efficient to develop new therapeutic approaches to nullify the resistance mechanisms or, even better, investigate on alternative therapeutic strategies based on non-antibiotic treatments. Just to mention an example related to the consequences of unnecessary prescribing and/or overprescribing of antibiotics, we have to remember that hospitals are places where to be treated for the acquired diseases and not where to contract new infectious diseases caused by multidrug-resistant microorganisms.”

Gianfranco Donelli obtained his master degree in Biological Sciences from the University of Rome “La Sapienza” in 1966 and since 1967 he worked as researcher at the Italian National Institute of Health (ISS) in Rome, where in 1975 he was appointed Head of the Electron Microscopy Unit and in 1979 Research Director in Molecular Biology.

In 1982 he founded the Laboratory of Ultrastructures , leaded by him till 1996. His research activity has been mainly focused on the causative agents of intestinal infections, on the mode of action of bacterial toxins and other virulence factors as well as on bacterial biofilms. Concerning his teaching activity, he was invited since 1977 as visiting professor in the Universities of Ancona , Naples, Perugia, Rome and Urbino and in 1999 he obtained the habilitation as full Professor of Microbiology at the University of Palermo.

Vice-President from 1994 to 1999 of the Advisory Committee for Biological and Medical Sciences of the Italian National Research Council, he has been then appointed Officer for International Affairs of the Italian Society of Microbiology and FEMS delegate (2003 – today) , President of the Society for Microbial Ecology and Disease (2006 – 2009) and Vice-President of ESCMID Study Group for Biofilms (2009 – 2013).

After his retirement from the Istituto Superiore di Sanità he founded in 2010, at the Santa Lucia Research Hospital in Rome, the Microbial Biofilm Laboratory where he is still active, currently investigating the field of microbial biofilms in healthcare-associated infections.
Professor Donelli is author of more than 270 full-length papers published on international journals (Scopus H-index = 47)

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