Taco Kooij is a molecular/cellular parasitologist and experimental geneticist with a broad interest in the biology of apicomplexan parasites. His main expertise is with the murine malaria model parasite Plasmodium berghei and analyzing the entire complex malaria parasite life cycle. After studying chemistry at Utrecht University and the University of Strathclyde (Glasgow), he finished his PhD (cum laude) at the Leiden University Medical Centre on a comparative genome analysis of malaria parasites. The next 10 years, he studied a variety of molecular and cellular biological aspects of malaria parasites at the University of Oxford, the Heidelberg University School of Medicine (on an EMBO long-term fellowship), and finally the Max-Planck-Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin. In 2014, he was awarded an NWO-ALW Vidi grant, which facilitated his return to the Netherlands. In Nijmegen, he aims to unravel the functioning of the malaria parasite mitochondrion using experimental and computational approaches.
Unlike viruses or bacteria, malaria parasites belong to an ancient family of single-cell infectious organisms that have a very complex cellular structure, much like our own cells. These cells consist of many different chambers, so called organelles, each with their own function. The mitochondrion is one such specialized organelle, often referred to as the cell's power plant, while in most cells it is the main site of energy production. Malaria parasites only have a single and abnormal mitochondrion, which is essential for the parasite's survival. Indeed, one of the most effective anti-malarial drugs, atovaquone, kills the parasite by targeting a mitochondrial protein. Nevertheless, the malaria parasite mitochondrion remains poorly understood.
In my group, we will integrate experimental and computational approaches to identify all of the estimated 400-500 mitochondrial proteins. Using this information, we will build a computational model that will allow the prediction of essential proteins. Next, we will improve existing methods to modify the parasite DNA in order to remove genes with a role in mitochondria to study their function and verify the computer predictions. Finally, by comparing the experimentally validated malaria mitochondrial model with existing models of human mitochondria, we will be able to identify suitable targets for new anti-malarial medicines. Due to the tight integration of experimental and computational work, my group has strong associations both with the parasitology labs of the Dep. of Medical Microbiology and with the Centre for Molecular and Biomolecular Informatics.