Genome mining of virulent small molecules in human fungal pathogens

Developing new strategies to understand fungal diseases and infections

The incidence of invasive fungal infections has been increasing at an alarming rate in recent years due to the expanding population of immunocompromised patients as a result of HIV, cancer chemotherapy, and the increasing use of immunosuppressive drugs in organ transplantation and in the treatment of various autoimmune diseases. A major concern is the increasing infections caused by opportunistic fungi, which are resistant or tolerant to clinically available antifungal drugs.

The fungal pathogens are thought to release virulence factors, enzymes and toxins into the host during infection. Some of these virulence factors or toxins are small molecules known as secondary metabolites. At the same time, the fungal secondary metabolites include important clinical drugs such as the antibiotic penicillins, the cholesterol-lowering statins, the immunosuppressive cyclosporin, and the antifungals echinocandins, which have positively impact human health.

Genome sequencing has revealed a large number of gene clusters encoding unknown secondary metabolite biosynthetic pathways in fungal human pathogens. What are the biological targets of these secondary metabolites? Could they be involved in virulence or fungal-host interactions? Could these small molecules be repurposed as drugs?

Our research group is interested in using functional genomics to identify candidate gene clusters in the fungal pathogens that may encode for secondary metabolites important for their pathogenic lifestyle. Using the synthetic biology platforms available in the lab, we attempt to produce the small molecules encode by these gene clusters for chemical and biological characterisations. Understanding the contribution of these small molecules in causing fungal diseases could result in new strategies for novel diagnostics and therapeutics that facilitate early detection and treatment. Furthermore, these bioactive small molecules that target the human macromolecules may be repurposed as novel drugs.

For more background information, see the suggested readings below.

Suggested readings

Research team leader: Dr Yit Heng Chooi

I was awarded an ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Awards (DECRA) in 2013. In 2015, I joined the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry at UWA to start a new research group. My research interests are on the biosynthesis of secondary metabolites in fungi and to uncover their bio-ecological roles using a combination of functional genomics, synthetic biology and chemical ecology.

How to apply

Interested in becoming part of this project? Complete the following steps to submit your expression of interest:

Step 1 - Check criteria

General UWA PhD entrance requirements can be found on the Future Students website.

Step 2 - Submit enquiry to research team leader

Step 3 - Lodge application

After you have discussed your project with the research team leader, you should be in a position to proceed to the next step of the UWA application process: Lodge an application. Different application procedures apply to domestic and international students.


Domestic students

All domestic students may apply for Research Training Program and University Postgraduate Awards (UPA) scholarships

International students

A range of scholarships are available from international organisations and governments. The full list, organised by country, is available on the Future Students website.

In addition, all international students may apply for International Research Training Program scholarships.

Indigenous students
Indigenous students are encouraged to apply for Indigenous Postgraduate Research Supplementary Scholarships.
Forrest Foundation scholarships
All international and Australian students who wish to study towards the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) at The University of Western Australia may apply for Forrest Scholarships.

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