Molecular mechanisms underlying plant-pathogen arms race


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 an estimated 13% loss in crop yield each year. While battling diseases is essential for sustainable agriculture and global food security, developing crops with durable resistance requires a deep understanding of the basic molecular mechanisms that underlie the dynamic interactions between plant hosts and pathogens. A major approach to unravel these mechanisms is to study pathogen effectors, which are key virulence proteins that can directly manipulate host immunity. Plants have evolved a sophisticated immune system that is robust enough to protect them from the vast majority of potential pathogens in the surrounding environment. However, successful pathogens produce effectors to defeat host immunity. Understanding how effectors render plants susceptible to pathogens provides essential insight into the fundamental principles of host-pathogen interactions. This knowledge is key towards establishing sustainable disease control strategies. This project employs the model Pseudomonas syringae-Arabidopsis thaliana pathosystem to investigate a newly emerged aspect in plant immunity, which is centered on the metabolism of nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD+). As an important metabolic and redox agent, specific cleavage of NAD+ has recently been shown to be an important process during the activation of immune signalling. This project employs a combination of genetics, molecular biology, and biochemical approaches to advance our understanding of this new frontier in plant immunity. The student will receive broad training on cutting-edge, interdisciplinary technologies such as proteomics, protein structure analysis, and metabolomics. Training on communication, management, and other transferable skills will also be offered to enhance career planning and professional development. At the end of the degree, the student will be equipped with the necessary skills to pursue a successful career in science.


Hou, Y., Zhai, Y., Feng, L., Karimi, H.Z., Rutter, B.D., Zeng, L., Choi, D.S., Zhang, B., Gu, W., Chen, X., Ye, W., Innes, R.W., Zhai, J., Ma, W.* (2019) A Phytophthora effector suppresses trans-kingdom RNAi to promote disease susceptibility. Cell Host & Microbe. 25: 153-165

Zhang, Z., Ma, K-W., Gao, L., Hu, Z., Schwizer, S., Ma, W.*, Song, J*. (2017) Mechanism of host substrate acetylation by a YopJ family effector. Nature Plants. 3: 17115.

Zhang, Z., Ma, K-W., Yuan, S., Luo, Y., Jiang, S., Pang, S., Ma, W.*, Song J.* (2016) Structure and mechanism of Pseudomonas syringae HopZ1a reveal a molecular paradigm for YopJ superfamily effectors. Nature Structure and Molecular Biology. 23: 847-852.