Discover how a parasite turns its host into a zombie


Some parasites have the capacity to completely change the appearance and behaviour of their hosts. The hosts effectively become zombies that are under control of the parasite. We recently discovered that these parasites act by depositing small proteins into host cells. These proteins generate short circuits between cellular pathways that usually do not meet. The parasite proteins are highly effective and have activities not described previously.

In this project, the main objective is to further characterize one of these parasite proteins. The specific aims of the project are to (1) study the specificity of parasite protein interactions with plant proteins, (2) examine how the parasite proteins modulate plant targets, and (3) assess how the parasite protein alters plant development and increases plant susceptibility to the parasite and parasite insect vectors.

Upon completion of the project, we will know how the parasite protein transforms a plant into a strange monstrosity that lives longer and produces more nutrition for the parasite and its insect vector.

The student will learn cloning, conduct a range of biochemical assays to study protein-protein interactions, and study processes involved in gene regulation.
The student will also generate stable transgenic plants and CRISPR CAS edited lines, thereby building knowledge in plant biotechnology and genetics. They will conduct bioassays with plant pathogens and insects.

Depending on the student’s interest and creativity, there will be plenty of opportunities to develop novel approaches to take the project beyond current knowledge and make new discoveries, including those that require bioinformatics skills.

The student will be supervised by an experienced team of wet-lab scientists, evolutionary biologists and computer scientists, will participate in weekly lab meetings to present their own work and discuss recent literature and contribute presentations in the departmental seminar series, and will attend several (inter)national conferences.


Huang W. & Hogenhout S.A. (2022). Interfering with plant developmental timing promotes susceptibility to insect vectors of a bacterial parasite. bioRxiv 2022.03.30.486463; doi:

Huang, W., MacLean, A.M., Sugio, A., Maqbool, A., Busscher, M., Cho, S.-T., Kamoun, S., Kuo, C.-H., Immink, R.G.H., and Hogenhout, S.A. (2021). Parasitic modulation of host development by ubiquitin-independent protein degradation. Cell 184: 5201-5214.e12.

Huang, W., Reyes-Caldas, P., Mann, M., Seifbarghi, S., Kahn, A., Almeida, R.P.P., BĂ©ven, L., Heck, M., Hogenhout, S.A., and Coaker, G. (2020). Bacterial Vector-Borne Plant Diseases: Unanswered Questions and Future Directions. Mol Plant. 13:1379-1393.

Pecher, P., Moro, G., Canale, M.C., Capdevielle, S., Singh, A., MacLean, A., Sugio, A., Kuo, C.H., Lopes, J.R.S. and Hogenhout, S.A (2019). Phytoplasma SAP11 effector destabilization of TCP transcription factors differentially impact development and defence of Arabidopsis versus maize. PLoS Pathog. 15:e1008035.

Tomkins, M., Kliot, A., Maree, A.F., and Hogenhout, S.A. (2018). A multi-layered mechanistic modelling approach to understand how effector genes extend beyond phytoplasma to modulate plant hosts, insect vectors and the environment. Curr Opin Plant Biol 44, 39-48