Effector evolution in plant pathogens


With the human population projected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, the looming challenge of feeding the rapidly growing population is threatened by plant pathogens, which cause significant losses in crop yield each year. Developing durable resistance requires a deep understanding of the molecular mechanisms that underlie the dynamic co-evolution between plants and pathogens.

Plants have evolved a sophisticated immune system but successful pathogens produce effector proteins to defeat host immunity and create a suitable environment for disease development. A hallmark of host-pathogen arms race is the accelerated evolution of pathogen effectors. Understanding how effectors render plants susceptible and elucidating the mechanisms utilized by pathogens to facilitate rapid evolution in their effector repertoire will offer important insight into the fundamental principles of pathogenesis. This knowledge is essential in establishing sustainable disease control strategies.

Focusing on the devastating plant pathogen Phytophthora, this project will investigate how modular architecture of proteins facilitate functional diversification in an effector repertoire through which new activities of host manipulation could arise. Innovative proteomic approaches in combination with genetics, biochemistry, bioinformatics, molecular biology, and protein structure analyses will be employed to advance a fundamental understanding of this important aspect of host-pathogen co-evolution.

This project offers broad training on cutting-edge, interdisciplinary technologies as well as transferable skills to enhance career planning and professional development. Successful applicant will gain excellent support both intellectually and technically from experienced mentors and support teams. They will join an energetic team and work in a highly collaborative research environment with a strong commitment to excellence in science.



1. Y. Qiao, L. Liu, Q. Xiong, C. Flores, J. Wong, J. Shi, X. Wang, X. Liu, Q. Xiang, S. Jiang, F. Zhang, Y. Wang, H. S. Judelson, X. Chen, W. Ma*. (2013) Oomycete pathogens encode RNA silencing suppressors. Nat. Genet. doi: 10.1038/ng.2525.

2. Y. Hou, Y. Zhai, L. Feng, H. Z. Karimi, B. D. Rutter, L. Zeng, D. S. Choi, B. Zhang, W. Gu, X. Chen, W. Ye, R. W. Innes, J. Zhai, W. Ma*. (2019) A Phytophthora effector suppresses trans-Kingdom RNAi to promote disease susceptibility. Cell Host Microbe. doi: 10.1016/j.chom.2018.11.007.

3. J. He, W. Ye, D. S. Choi, B. Wu, Y. Zhai, B. Guo, S. Duan, Y. Wang, J. Gan, W. Ma*, J. Ma*. (2019) Structural analysis of Phytophthora suppressor of RNA silencing 2 (PSR2) reveals a conserved modular fold contributing to virulence. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1819481116.

4. S. Dong*, W. Ma*. (2021) How to win a tug-of-war: the adaptive evolution of Phytophthora effectors. Curr. Opin. Plant Biol. doi: 10.1016/j.pbi.2021.102027.