Studentship | The antiviral roles of ISG15 modifications

MRC Funded
Project with

One of the most important challenges facing biomedical research is to understand the molecular details of how our immune system defends against pathogens. In the newly established Swatek lab, we aim to understand the roles of ubiquitin and ubiquitin-like modifications in the antiviral state (1). These modifications have emerged as crucial mediators of the signal transduction pathways that sense and respond to viruses. The ubiquitin-like protein, ISG15, is highly upregulated during the antiviral state and marks thousands of proteins to help shape the host defence response. To subvert ISG15 signaling, many viruses encode enzymes that remove these modifications, and we have previously identified an elegant example of viral ISG15 suppression (2). Surprisingly, however, the roles of the vast majority of ISG15 modifications are unknown, and therefore, understanding how ISG15 contributes to the antiviral state is of significant importance. This PhD project aims to identify novel substrates and pathways regulated by ISG15 signalling and link these discoveries to a cellular function.

This project takes advantage of a recently developed toolkit to study the ISG15 system. Students interested in gaining expertise in a wide variety of approaches are strongly encouraged to apply since the project merges several disciplines, including method development, state-of-the-art mass spectrometry, cell biology, structural biology, biophysics, and biochemistry (3-4). The student will have a unique opportunity to work at the bench alongside their supervisor and the opportunity to participate in a multinational collaboration.

  1. Swatek KN, and Komander D (2016). Ubiquitin modifications. Cell Research. Vol. 26, 399-422.
  2. Swatek KN, Aumayr M, Pruneda JN, Visser L, Berryman S, Kueck A, Kuppeveld FV, Tuthill T, and Komander D (2018). Irreversible inactivation of ISG15 by a viral leader protease enables alternative infection detection strategies. PNAS. Vol. 115, 2371-2376.
  3. Swatek KN, Usher JL, Kueck AF, Gladkova C, Mevissen TET, Pruneda JN, Skern T, and Komander D (2019). Insights into ubiquitin chain architecture using Ub-clipping. Nature. Vol. 572, 533-537.
  4. Wallace I, Baek K, Prabu JR, Vollrath R, Gronau SV, Schulman BA, and Swatek KN (2023). Insights into the ISG15 transfer cascade by the UBE1L activating enzyme. BioRxiv.

At the MRC PPU, as well as the possibility of a PhD in one particular lab, we offer the possibility of two 4.5-month rotations in labs of their choice. A range of other projects from MRC PPU scientists are advertised on this website. Rotations provide valuable experience and help with deciding on the choice of PhD project and research group.

Application Procedure

We are currently accepting applications for our 2024 programme. To apply, please send the following to

  • Cover letter explaining your interest in our work. Please also indicate which group(s) you are most interested in, and whether you prefer rotations or would like to join one lab directly.
  • CV with contact details of three referees

Applications from overseas students are welcome. The closing date for this round of applications is 28th June 2024.