Living cells accumulate damaged, dangerous or excess material, which needs to be recycled. Autophagy (self-cannibalisation) enables cells to digest such material. Autophagy is also important for defence against infection, since it allows cells to digest pathogens which have invaded the cytoplasm. We know that agents of infectious diseases can manipulate autophagy in their hosts in order to enhance infection. Viruses, which must invade cells to replicate, are likely to be particularly adept at this. If we can understand which effector proteins pathogens use to exploit or subvert host autophagy, we will be able to develop better treatments for infections.
There are so many potential host/pathogen interactions that it is not feasible to use laboratory experimentation to identify all proteins used by pathogens to manipulate autophagy. The Penman group is working with Ioannis Nezis in the School of Life Sciences to get around this problem using computational approaches exploiting evolutionary theory. Mamas Louca's PhD, jointly supervised by the Penman and Nezis groups addresses this problem - for more details please see his project page.