Meet a Whitehead Postdoc: Diego Huet
Diego Huet is a postdoctoral fellow in Sebastian Lourido’s lab at Whitehead Institute. His research is focused on the unique biology of the parasite Toxoplasma gondii. Huet, who now calls the Boston area home, grew up in Mexico City and is half Mexican and half French. He did his undergraduate and doctoral studies in France before joining the Lourido lab in 2014. As a postdoc, he was recently awarded with a K99/R00 award from the NIH to pursue his work. We sat down with Huet to learn more about him and his experiences in and out of the lab.
What are you investigating?
In the Lourido lab we study a eukaryotic parasite called Toxoplasma gondii. This organism is remarkable because is it ubiquitous; it infects a third of the world's population. It has this amazing capacity to invade almost any cell in your body. Normally parasites have what is called tropism, meaning they invade a particular cell type. Toxoplasma can invade virtually any cell in your body, and it can also any invade pretty much any bird or mammal—any animal that has a 37 degrees Celsius body temperature. Sebastian’s lab focuses on how calcium regulates different steps in the life cycle of the parasite while also developing new techniques to study the organism. In addition, Toxoplasma is related to Plasmodium, the parasite that causes malaria. That parasite is really hard to study, but we can use Toxoplasma as a model to understand shared aspects of both organisms.
As for me, I contributed to the development of the first genome-wide screens using CRISPR in Toxoplasma. Then I got interested in the mitochondria of the parasite. This is the organelle that people call the powerhouse of the cell, where cells produce energy in the form of the molecule ATP. I'm interested in the mitochondrial ATP synthase, a molecular nanomotor found in the vast majority of mitochondria. As a nanomotor, ATP synthase is able to rotate and by its rotation produce ATP. Also, ATP synthase is a complex made up of a lot of subunits, and researchers have had trouble identifying those subunits in Toxoplasma. However, recently we identified several of the subunits, and we discovered that they have diverged during evolution to be unrecognizable—completely unlike those found in common model organisms such as humans, mice, or yeast. That’s why they have remained undetected for so long.
What’s something you find fascinating about Toxoplasma?
An interesting fact about Toxoplasma and its relatives is that they all harbor a specific organelle called the apicoplast. This cellular structure is derived from a red alga, so it gives Toxoplasma some plant-like characteristics.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
Exploring new biology. There's a lot that we still don't know about Toxoplasma. Its genome is not very well annotated, meaning that for a lot of the proteins encoded in the genome, we have their DNA sequence information but no one knows where in the organism the proteins are or what they do. One of the most gratifying experiences that I have had during my postdoc is that I started to localize several of those proteins, including some subunits of the ATP synthase complex. So, to my knowledge, I was basically the first person to look at these proteins and where they are localized in the cell.
What’s your least favorite part of your job?
The fact that you have to deal with a lot of failure. Sometimes you don't know why something fails, and it doesn't matter how many times you try to optimize and repeat the experiment. It's really frustrating. You need a lot of patience.
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
When I was a kid I was really into—and I'm still into—a lot of unusual biology. I like insects and other arthropods. I wanted to be an entomologist in order to go to the Amazon or another rainforest to study new species of bugs that no one had ever discovered. But at my college, I never had a chance to take an entomology course. Instead, I started to do molecular biology, and I found that you can also discover new biology that way. For example, by being the first person to localize undescribed Toxoplasma proteins. It's on a different scale, but it's the same feeling of discovering new things.
How did you get into this field of research?
I was always very into studying the biology of non-conventional organisms. During my undergraduate studies in France, I decided to start studying single-celled parasites. I ended up doing a PhD in Paris working with trypanosomes, which are parasites transmitted by the tsetse fly that cause sleeping sickness in Africa. That really got me into this molecular parasitology field. It's a small field and everybody is super friendly. I like that a lot because you don't feel the competition that you can feel in other fields.
Why did you choose to come to Whitehead Institute?
After my PhD I wanted to keep doing molecular parasitology and I started looking for a postdoc to work on another type of single-celled parasites: Toxoplasma or Plasmodium. Sebastian had recently started his lab and was looking for postdocs. After talking with him and visiting Whitehead, I really liked the things he was going to do, so I joined the lab. When I arrived, I was one of the first postdocs in the lab. Since then, the lab has expanded a lot. As someone who may become a young primary investigator, I have learned a lot by watching Sebastian transition from his start managing three or four people to the current state of the lab, with a group of fifteen.
Is being a researcher what you expected it would be?
Tricky question! No, I don't think I had any idea of what it would be like. When you hear about scientists, you hear about what they've done and their achievements, but you don't see or hear about the other side: the failure, the effort, the long hours in the lab and the hard work that they put in. But when I started to do research, I actually liked it. Like any other scientist, I have to deal with a lot of stress and a lot of different issues, but at the end of the day I enjoy the work. That's why I am still doing it and will continue.
What are your hobbies outside of work?
I have been playing classical guitar for 15 years. I also go to a lot of concerts—Boston and Cambridge have pretty good venues. And I go to the gym. With those hobbies, I can relax after a long day in the lab.
What’s your favorite song to play?
There’s a modern classical suite from an Italian composer, Carlo Domeniconi, called “Koyunbaba.” He went to Turkey and was inspired by the music there, and the notes and sounds. To me, it's very relaxing, but it's also very technical and unconventional. The guitar is tuned in an unusual manner, so when people that are unfamiliar with it listen to it for the first time, they are surprised by the sounds and melody, which are not the ones that they were expecting to hear.
Do you collect anything?
I kind of started a collection of insects when I was a kid. Now I'm moving all the time, and I can't carry a physical collection when I travel, but I'd say I digitally collect them. My Instagram is just pictures of bugs that I stumble upon in different locations, including Cambridge and Whitehead Institute. I recently increased my Instagram collection significantly after traveling to Costa Rica last summer. I did a lot of hiking in the cloud forests of that country. One of my favorite encounters was with a glass-wing butterfly, which has transparent wings. It was really cool. I had only seen it in books or had people tell me about it, and it was amazing to actually be right there and take a picture of it.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
I see myself hopefully running a lab somewhere here on the East Coast, studying the unusual and divergent aspects of the biology of Toxoplasma and its relatives. My family's still in Mexico, so the East Coast is way closer to home both culturally and in distance than France. Fingers crossed that’s where I’ll be.
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