Centre for Health and Bioinformatics

Profile

Professor Robert Hirt

Professor of Evolutionary Parasitology

Background

Qualifications

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)

Languages

French - mother tongue
German - basic conversation
Spanish - very basic conversation

Membership of learned societies

British Society of Parasitology (UK)

  • Member of the BSP council (2018-22): Liaison with Learned Societies

Microbiology Society (UK)

  • Member of the MicSoc council (2021-23): Eukaryotic Division

The Genetics Society (UK)

Society for Mucosal Immunology

Editorial Roles for Research Journals

Frontiers in Parasitology - Associate Editor (Molecular Cellular Parasitology) (IF: NA)

Frontiers in Cellular and Infection Microbiology - Review Editor (Parasite and Host) (IF: 4.3)

Systematic Biology (OUP) - Editorial Board Member (IF: 15.7)

Google Scholar and Publons profiles

GS: Link to profile

PublonsLink to profile

Research

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 and parasite-microbiota interactions. My research focus on the mucosal extracellular parasite Trichomonads and the intracellular parasites Microsporidia infecting human and/or animals. Topics include the role of lateral gene transfer and gene duplications in parasite genome evolution, surface and secreted proteins mediating host-parasite and parasite-bacteria interactions and mucosal microbiology, including the microbiota of the digestive tract (gut and oral cavity), the urogenital tract and the respiratory tract.

Aims

• 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 has the following research foci:

1) Comparative, Evolutionary and Functional Genomics
We are using comparative genomics and transcriptomics to investigate (i) the contrasting roles of vertical and horizontal inheritance, (ii) the role of gene duplications in shaping eukaryotic genomes and (iii) functional importance of specific genes central to host-parasite and parasite-microbiota interactions. These investigations focuses on gene families acquired through horizontal gene transfer and those encoding proteins orchestrating (a) membrane trafficking and (b) host-parasite and parasite-microbiota interactions. These investigations also lead to new insights into human-microbiota interactions contributing to both health or disease.

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 species 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. 

Postgraduate Supervision

Supervision of MSc, MSci and MRes students (up to two per year)

Supervision of PhD students:

- Eleanor Senior (BBSRC-DTP, based at Uni Liverpool, Lab of Andrew Jackson) (2016-2020)

- Tamara Salloum (Newcastle Uni, ORS, based at the Lebanon American University, Lab of Prof. Sima Tokajan) (2017-2020)

- Nicholas Bailey (BBSRC-DTP, with Dave Bolam and Andrew Jackson Uni Liverpool) (2017-2022)

- Lenshina Mpeyako (Commonwealth Scholarship Commission, Newcastle Uni, with Nick Jakubovics and Waldemar Vollmer) (2019-2022)

- Adam Hart (BBSRC-DTP, with Dave Bolam, Lis Lowe and Andrew Jackson Uni Liverpool) (2020-2024)

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) (2016-2018)

Oskari Huttunen foundation post-doc funding to Dr Heli Monttinen: 'Lateral Gene Transfers from Bacteriophages to Eukaryotes' (40'000 euros) (2018-2019).

Hosting of Research Fellows

MSCA Fellowship to Dr Johan Panek: MicroMAM, 'The mammalian intracellular response to Microsporidia infection', (195'455 euros) (2019-2021).

MSCA Fellowship to Dr Sergey Melnikov: MicroMISTRANS, 'Error-prone protein synthesis in fungal pathogens Microsporidia: its scope and potential therapeutic targeting', (224'934 euros) (2020-2022).

Teaching

Overview

My teaching is led by my research on the comparative biology of microbial parasites and members of the mucosal microbiota and it aims at inspiring and stimulating students to participate in the process of fundamental research. It also illustrates how new biomedical knowledge can potentially be applied to reduce the impact of infectious diseases and chronic conditions involving host-microbe interactions. My teaching covers a broad range of topics around the molecular cell biology, genomics and evolution of microbial parasites and their bacteria and viral neighbours at mucosal surfaces.  We also cover fundamentals of the host mucosal immune system required to protect us from pathogens and how members of the microbiota contribute to numerous aspects of mucosal homeostasis.

Undergraduate Teaching

FMS - School of Biomedical Sciences

Stage 1

- "Cell Biology" - Module CMB1004 (First three lectures)

- "Cell Biology Practical" - Module CMB1005 (Protist cell biology: Paramecium and Euglenids)

- "Microbiology and Immunology" - Module CMB1003 (Two lectures: Microbial eukaryotes and parasites) 

Stage 2

-"Clinical Immunology and viral pathogens" - Module BMS2012 (Three lectures on mucosal immunology)

-"Health and disease at mucosal surfaces" - Module BMS2015 (Module leader)

-"Microbiology for Dentistry" - Module DEN2108 (one lecture on oral microbial parasites)

Stage 3

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

-"Microbiota and pathogens: Mucosal Microbiota, Protozoa and Fungi" - Module MIC3046 (Module leader)

- "Research Project" - Module CMB3000 (supervision of 1-4 students)  

SAGE - School of Natural and Environmental Sciences (Stage 2 only)

- "Animal parasites" - Module ACE2031 (2 lectures or 1 extended seminar)

Postgraduate Teaching

- MRes: "Mitochondrial Biology and Medicine" - Module MMB8034 (one lecture on Mitochondria evolution and diversity)

- MRes: "Human Health and the Impact of Microbial Genomics" - Module MMB8048 (three lectures on microbial pan-/meta-genomes and the human microbiota)

- Supervision of MRes/MSc/MSci students' research project (supervision of 1-2 students/year)

- Supervision of PhD students

Teaching outside Newcastle University

MSc course on Infection Diseases, University of Kent. "Advances in Parasitology" - Module BI855 (Contribute to one extended seminar)

MSc course on Comparative Genomics, ENS, Lyon, France. I have contributed since 2014 to this course. One extended lecture and a Q&A session: http://biologie.ens-lyon.fr/masterbiosciences/presentation-des-ue/les-ue-europe/ue-comparative-genomics

Publications