Worldwide roughly two billion people and even more livestock and companion animals are infected by nematodes. These animal-parasitic nematodes affect the quality of life as chronic infections may cause serious health problems and undermine the productivity of livestock farming. Animal-parasitic nematodes engage in an intimate relationship with their host on which they fully depend for development and reproduction. Host-parasite co-evolution has allowed these nematodes to become master manipulators of the immune system, which is illustrated by suppression of innate and adaptive immunity, induction of regulatory immune responses and changes in microbiome composition.
Immunomodulation is mediated by secretions and excretions of the nematode. These secretions are complex mixtures of proteins and lipids, which in many cases are extensively decorated with carbohydrate structures, also known as glycans. In close collaboration with human and veterinary parasitologists, we aim to unravel the molecular and cellular mechanisms underlying parasite immunomodulation, including the role of glycans. In parallel, we are developing a plant-based expression platform that allows for the production of recombinant parasite glycoproteins with their native glycan composition. The generated knowledge and platform is used to develop novel biopharmaceuticals and effective vaccines based on parasite glycoproteins.
Last, but not least, we use nematodes to investigate human health indirectly. The nematode Caenorhabditis elegans is used as a model organism to understand biological processes, including human diseases such as: Parkinson’s disease and alcohol use disorder. C. elegans has many characteristics which make it an ideal model for studying the contribution of individual genetic variation to genetically complex diseases. We work with local and global genetically diverse isolates, which we use to create so-called mapping populations. These populations we use in quantitative genetic approaches to identify which genes contribute to complex traits and diseases. To identify candidate genes underlying complex traits we perform mutation analysis and crispr-cas9 genome editing.