Professor Paul Birch



Plant Sciences, School of Life Sciences

Portrait photo of Paul Birch
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One of the most significant questions in plant pathology is: How do pathogens suppress or otherwise manipulate host defences to establish disease? To do this, they secrete proteins and other chemicals that can interact with the host cell. In some cases, virulence determinants called effector proteins are delivered (translocated) inside living host cells where they ‘re-programme’ defences and metabolism to the pathogen’s benefit.

My group mainly studies effector proteins from the potato late blight pathogen, Phytophthora infestans. P. infestans is an oomycete, a eukaryotic pathogen with a fungus-like lifestyle that develops haustoria - finger-like cell structures that form an intimate interaction with the host plasma membrane during the early stages of disease.  We have shown that haustoria are a major site of delivery of a class of proteins called RXLR effectors. The RXLR motif within these secreted effectors is required for their translocation inside host cells. In the genome of P. infestans we predict that there are >425 RXLR effector genes, demonstrating a remarkable potential for manipulation of host processes. We are discovering that RXLR effectors interact directly with a range of regulatory proteins in the host cell to suppress or otherwise manipulate plant defences. In contrast, the RXLRs are also targets for host resistance proteins which activate immune responses that prevent further colonization by the pathogen.

Using comparative and functional genomics, the key questions we are addressing are:

  1. How are RXLR effectors delivered into host plant cells?
  2. When are RXLR proteins required by the pathogen and where are they localized during infection?
  3. What are the host targets of RXLR effectors and what roles do those targets play in plant defence or metabolism?
  4. How are RXLR effectors co-evolving with their targets in the host, and how are they evolving to evade detection by the plant immune system?

With other members of the Dundee Effector Consortium we are exploiting our understanding of effector biology and diversity within pathogen populations to seek corresponding resistance genes in both host and non-host plants. In particular, we are searching for plant genes that provide durable disease resistance to P. infestans, and to a range of other economically damaging pests and pathogens of Solanaceae crop species (potato, tomato and pepper).

View full research profile and publications

Media availability

I am available for media commentary on my research.

Plant pathogen interactions

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Areas of expertise

  • Climate change
  • Environment

Second supervisor


Award Year
Major Personal Funding Awards / ERC Advanced Grant 2017
National Sciences Prizes awarded since 1990 / Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award 2017
Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 2016