Biomechanics of Oomycete infection: to invade, and how to invade?

Within this project, a collaboration between Cellular Biology and Physical Chemistry, we study the behaviour of Phytophthora Infestans, a oomycete (fungus like organism) that is a parasite for potatoes. This little spore, just tens of microns across can devastate an entire potato crop in just two weeks, resulting in massive losses for farmers globally. Breeding has not been successful in the past 160 years, and a new approach is required. The generation of spores from an infected plant and their infection of the next potato plant is a key step in this cycle, and is the focus of our studies.

left) Infected potato leaf and right) Phytophtora Infestans.
left) Infected potato leaf and right) Phytophtora Infestans.

Phytophthora has a major ace in its sleeve to infiltrate the plant: the ability to penetrate through the leaf cells. These spores, just microns across, can generate up to several bars of force to push themselves through the epidermal layer and infiltrating the leaf. From there they infect the plant, and it is estimated that 1 spore can multiply 100.000 times over a single infection cycle.

Breaking the infection chain requires a deep understanding of the dynamical infection mechanisms, which are unknown. We study this infection process using artificial leaf mimics that can sense the deformations caused by Phytophthora Infestans. We are interested in measuring forces generated by oomycetes, and finding out how these oomycetes are able to hang on to the surface. Preliminary results show that large forces are generated on our surfaces, which are biocompatible and able to sense such deformation in super-resolution microscopy. Are you interested in:

  • Studying biology through leaf mimicry, expand current models with other materials and geometries to study the response of artificial leaf mimics to force, calibrating these sensors. How can we make even closer mimics, and how much force is needed to deform them?
  • Study the adhesive behaviour of Phytophthora Infestans on the current generation of sensors using (high-speed) confocal microscopy, and advanced image analysis. How do the deformation fields look like? Are there trends in the adhesion process?
  • Synthesis of new Diels-Alders molecules to detect bond breaking events within Normal Force Microscopy Sensors. Does bond breaking happen in soft rubbers? How does this process propagate?
  • Or do you perhaps have something else in mind? What would you like to do? Please, feel free to discuss or email me.