Institute for Cell and Molecular Biosciences

Staff Profile

Professor Robert Hirt

Professor of Evolutionary Parasitology



PhD - Molecular cell biology of epithelial cells, membrane trafficking of the pIgR, University of Lausanne
BSc - Biochemistry, Zoology, Molecular Biology, University of Lausanne

Previous Positions

Senior Lecturer, Institute for Cell and Molecular Biosciences, Newcastle University, (2007-2013)

Senior Lecturer, School of Biology, Newcastle University, (2004-2007)

Senior Research Officer, Department of Zoology, The Natural History Museum, London, (2000-2004)

Honours and Awards

Wellcome Trust University Award, equivalent to a Senior Lecturer position, at the Department of Zoology, The Natural History Museum, London (2000-2005). Interrupted in May 2004 to move to Newcastle University

Wellcome Trust Research Fellow (Career Development Fellowship) at the Department of Zoology, The Natural History Museum, London (1996-2000)


French - mother tongue
German - basic conversation

Membership of learned societies

British Society of Parasitology

Microbiology Society

The Genetics Society

Society for Mucosal Immunology

Google Scholar profile

Link to profile


Research Interests

I use microbial parasites as model systems to study eukaryote cell and genome evolution. This work also leads to new insights into the molecular basis of host-parasite interactions. My research focus on the extracelluar parasite Trichomonas vaginalis and the intracellular parasites Microsporidia. Topics include the role of lateral gene transfer and gene duplications in parasite genome evolution, surface proteins mediating host-parasite interactions and mucosal microbiology including the microbiota.


• Provide a better understanding of eukaryote origins and diversification through comparative genomics and molecular phylogenetics
• Broaden comparative molecular and cellular studies of eukaryotes to provide a more comprehensive picture of their condition
• Contribute to deciphering the molecular and cellular basis of mucosal microbes interactions with their hosts, integrating both pathogens (microbial parasites) and mutualists (including bacteria)

Current Work

My research, done in collaboration with Prof Martin Embley, Dr Dave Bolam and/or extramural colleagues, has the following research foci:

1) Comparative and evolutionary Genomics
We are using whole genome data to investigate (i) the contrasting roles of vertical and horizontal inheritance and (ii) the role of gene duplications in shaping eukaryotic genomes. These investigations focuses on gene families acquired through horizontal gene transfer and those encoding proteins orchestrating (a) membrane trafficking and (b) host-microbes interactions. Comparative genomics of mucosal microbes is also investigated to gain new insight into surface and secreted proteins from the human microbiota.

2) Comparative Cell Biology
We are investigating the molecular and cellular organization of eukaryote endomembranes of endogenous (the secretory and endocytic pathways) and endosymbiotic origins (the mitochondria and their derived organelles hydrogenosomes and mitosomes).

3) Molecular and cellular basis of Trichomonas vaginalis pathobiology and host-microbiota interactions
We are investigating the cellular transformation of Trichomonas into amoeba upon contact to host tissue and the cell surface proteins involved in host tissue binding. We are characterisation of novel family of surface metallopeptidases shared between T. vaginalis and a range of human-associated bacteria including the abundant gut microbiota member Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron and relatives. We are also interested in the mechanisms used by the parasite T. vaginalis to evade patients adaptive immune responses. 

4) Phylogenetics
We are developing better methods, based upon likelihood and Bayesian approaches, for phylogenetic analysis of molecular data. Our aim is to improve the reconstruction of phylogenetic trees relevant to understanding eukaryote genome and cell evolution.

Postgraduate Supervision

Supervision of MSc and MRes students (up to one per year)

Supervision of PhD students:

- Didier Ndeh (Commonwealth Scholarship, with Dave Bolam) (2010-2013)

- Matthew Collison (EngD: Biopharmaceutical and Process Development, with GSK and Neil Wipat) (2010-2017) 


- Kacper Sendra (FP7, Symbiomics, with Martin Embley) (2011-2015) 


- Andrew Watson (BBSRC, with Martin Embley) (2011-2016)

- Will Lewis (with Martin Embley, ERC to Embley)(2013-2017)

- Justina Briliute (BBSRC-DTP, With Dave Bolam) (2014-2018)

- Nicholas Bailey (BBSRC-DTP, with Dave Bolam and Andrew Jackson Uni Liverpool) (2017-2021)

- Tamara Salloum (ORS, part time) (2017-2023)

Post-doc funding

Saatioiden post-doc funding to Dr Heli Monttinen: 'The potential impact of virus-mediated gene transfer in eukaryotic evolution' (104 760 euros) 104 760 €


Undergraduate Teaching

- 1st year "Cell Biology" - Module CMB1005 (one practical: Protist cell biology: Paramecium and Euglenids)

- 1st year "Microbiology and Immunology" - Module CMB1003 (two lectures on microbial eukaryotes/parasites) 

- 2nd year "Clinical Immunology and viral pathogens" - Module BMS2012 (3 lectures on mucosal immunology)

- 2nd year "Health and disease at mucosal surfaces" - Module BMS2015 (module leader)

- 3rd year "Evolution and genomics" - Module BGM3056 (50% of lectures, 1 seminar)

- 3rd year "Microbiota and pathogens: Mucosal Microbiota, Protozoa and Fungi" - Module MIC3046 (module leader)

- 3rd year "Research Project" - Module CMB3000 (supervision of 1-2 students)  

Postgraduate Teaching

- MSc: "Human health and the impact of microbial genomics" - Module MMS8102 (2 lectures)

- MRes: "Mitochondrial Biology and Medicine" - Module MMB8034 (1 lecture)

Supervision of MRes/MSc students
Supervision of PhD students

Other teaching

See also:
The home page of our Molecular Systematics Workshop which we run overseas every year. It contains free down-loadable teaching material including slides on phylogenetic analysis and an interactive tutorial.