University of Dundee

EASTBIO: Hunting for Veghog – elucidation of a novel crossroads between development and immunity in plants

Climate change is one of the biggest threats to global food production, leading to unpredictable weather patterns and geographical migration of pathogens. As sessile organisms, plants must respond to a changing environment in situ and have developed complex systems of perception and response to mitigate against environmental stress. As energy resources are finite plants must balance responses to pathogens and environmental stress with growth and developmental pathways. This can affect crop production if biomass or grain yield is supressed by environmental circumstances. Understanding this trade off is therefore key to sustaining food production in a changing climate. 


The hedgehog signalling pathway has long been assumed to exist exclusively in animal lineages. However, we have recently discovered evidence for an orthologous plant signalling pathway with profound effects on development. Hedgehog is a lipidated peptide secreted from cells as a short-range signalling molecule. The lipidation of hedgehog is catalysed by Hedgehog acyl transferase (Hhat) and is essential for its function. We have identified mutants in the putative plant homologue of Hhat, named Veghog acyl transferase (VAT), and deduced that loss-of-function mutants are embryo lethal, underlining the importance of this pathway to plant development 


Interestingly the expression of VAT is largely unaffected by abiotic stress but is strongly down regulated following exposure to pathogens. In mutant plants lacking R-proteins, required to initiate immunity in responses to secreted pathogen effectors, expression of VAT is elevated. This suggests that plants supress the VAT controlled developmental pathway to promote immunity, while pathogens, via effectors, target the VAT pathway to either supress immunity or promote plant growth. This indicates that VAT is a hitherto unidentified regulatory nexus underpinning the trade-off between growth and immunity. 


This project will aim to: 

  1. Generate and characterise weak mutant alleles of VAT to determine what effects VAT has on post-embryonic growth and development. 

  1. Identify the Veghog peptide substrate for VAT by peptidomics, co-purification, proximity labelling, yeast secretion assay and phage display. 

  1. Investigate the mechanistic basis of how Veghog acts to regulate plant development. 

  1. Investigate whether increased or decreased Veghog pathway action can help to promote immunity against bacterial and oomycete pathogens. 

  1. Identify the mechanism underlying how pathogens promote increased Veghog pathway action. 


This project will provide training in molecular biology, protein biochemistry, quantitative plant developmental and immunity biology, plant transformation, mass spectrometry proteomics, yeast secretion assays and phage display. You will join a diverse and collaborative lab with opportunities for international conference attendance and a wide range of scientific and transferrable skills training. Recent ~£65 million investment in the Advanced Plant Growth Centre and International Barley Hub ensure that cutting edge plant growth facilities are available, in addition the world leading biochemical, molecular, structural and proteomic expertise and facilities at Dundee.  


For further details and informal discussion prospective students are strongly encouraged to contact Dr Piers Hemsley ( or Prof. Paul Birch ( before submitting an application. 


Please note that the deadline for applying for this project is Friday 29th April 2022.