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Department of Pathology

 
My research focuses on the human malaria parasite: improving our understanding of the parasite’s basic biology and the impact of this biology on virulence. I use molecular genetics & cell biology to study this important human pathogen.

Biography

My first degree was in Natural Sciences at Cambridge, during which time I also participated in the Cold Spring Harbor undergraduate research program in the USA.  I then completed a PhD in Cell Biology at Cancer Research UK, before moving to the Harvard School of Public Health where I held a Charles H. Hood postdoctoral fellowship and began to study the epigenetic control of virulence genes in the malaria parasite.  During my postdoc I also conducted a field study at the MRC Institute in The Gambia, investigating clinical phenotypes and the expression of virulence genes in patients with malaria. 

Upon returning to the UK I worked briefly as a sub-editor at Nature, then joined the faculty at Keele University where I was a Lecturer and subsequently a Senior Lecturer until spring of 2018.  At Keele I established a research group within the Centre for Applied Entomology and Parasitology (CAEP), gained my Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching & Learning in Higher Education and became a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.  I taught undergraduate and graduate courses in parasitology and other areas and was awarded a 'superb supervisor' teaching award by the SU.  I sat on the Council of the British Society for Parasitology from 2012 to 2018, serving as the Hon. Communications Secretary 2015-2018. 

In 2018 I moved to a Senior Lectureship at Cambridge, where my research group is currently funded by grants from the ERC and Rosetrees Trust.  At Cambridge I organise the Part II (third year) course in parasitology, and teach both undergraduates and graduate (MPhil and PhD) students.

Merrick Lab photo 1

Research

My group studies the human malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum.  Research interests are centred around DNA biology, particularly the molecular mechanisms underlying DNA replication and cell cycle control in Plasmodium, which replicates by an unusual method called schizogony.  I am also interested in the roles that G-quadruplex DNA and RNA structures may play in the parasite - for example, in silencing and promoting the recombination of a family of key virulence genes called var genes, whose variant expression is under epigenetic control.  In fact, we have discovered that G-quadruplexes and their helicases have more general roles in genome stability/evolution in the malaria parasite, as well as influencing transcript expression at the RNA level.  I have a long-standing interest in epigenetics, particularly in a group of NAD+-dependent deacetylase enzymes called sirtuins which regulate subtelomeric chromatin and virulence gene expression.  My postdoctoral work linked the Plasmodium falciparum sirtuins to particular patterns of var gene expression and to severe malaria in human patients.

Alongside our research, we are actively involved in science communication, including school visits and participation in the annual Cambridge Festival.  Our latest public engagement project can be found here.

 Merrick Lab photo 2

 

Merrick lab news and events

2022:

May:  On May 3rd, Dr Merrick travelled to Keele University to deliver the keynote lecture at the annual Postgraduate Symposium for Natural Sciences.  The symposium featured short talks and posters presented by students from across the faculty, plus a '3-minute-thesis' competition and a keynote focussing on interdisciplinarity and effective science communication.

Apr: 

At the annual Cambridge Festival, the Cambridge Creative Encounters programme puts on a display of creative work interpreting the work of dozens of Cambridge researchers through film, photography, poetry and drama.  Dr Merrick participated this year: check out her work at the exhibit on New Museum site, Apr 4th-9th, where you can pick up a copy of the collection "We shall not cease from exploration": Words from the field.  Alternatively, find it on the Creative Encounters website.

Mar:

Dr Holly Craven presented her work on antimalarial drug repurposing at the Cambridge Infectious Diseases symposium on 9th March. The symposium, held in-person for the first time in 3 years, focussed on the pandemic and on Antimicrobial Resistance, with a keynote from Professor Dame Sally Davies.  At the end of March, meanwhile, PhD student Monique Johnson represented the lab at the annual meeting of the British Society of Parasitology held in York.

Feb: Dr Merrick has been invited to join the Editorial Board of the journal Frontiers in Microbiology.

2021:

Dec: As a Christmas gift for the lab, we have 2 new preprints on BioRxiv and submitted for peer review.  These describe our ERC-funded studies of DNA replication in schizogony and in gametogenesis. See

Nov: Dr Merrick and PDRA Dr Totanes spent the first week of November teaching on the Wellcome Trust Intensive Course in Malaria Molecular Genetics.  This course runs on alternate years in the UK and in malaria-endemic countries: this year it was scheduled to run in The Gambia.  After several pandemic-imposed postponements, it was decided to run the course virtually.  Many hours of lab practicals were filmed by the instructors and ~20 attendees from across Africa then spent the week online in interactive teaching sessions.  As the group photo shows, this wasn't the usual hands-on experience... but nevertheless a week of stimulating learning and networking for all involved.

 

Oct: A PhD position is available in the lab for autumn 2022.  Application deadline Jan 3rd 2022 (students must be eligible for Home Fees).  Apply at https://www.path.cam.ac.uk/graduate/fully-funded-studentships

Jul: Our lab retreat, held at Anglesey Abbey, was enjoyed by all (despite the rain showers) after more than a year of missing out on in-person lab meetings due to the pandemic.

 

Jun: Undergraduate student Daniel Nash joins the group in July-August on a summer studentship from the Pathology Society.  He will work with Dr Holly Craven on G-quadruplexes in Plasmodium.

Apr: The lab has two new preprints out this spring. They describe our MRC-funded work on RNA and G-quadruplex structures in Plasmodium - led by Dr Franck Dumetz with great collaboration from the Kwok lab in Hong Kong.  doi.org/10.1101/2021.03.08.434398 and doi.org/10.1101/2021.04.29.441925.

Mar: The lab's first front cover for Trends in Parasitology appears on the journal's April 2021 issue.  It accompanies Dr Merrick's recent article 'Hypnozoites in Plasmodium:do parasites parallel plants?’.  The article also appears in a Trends special collection on the topic of 'Resilience'.

Jan: Good luck to Dr Franck Dumetz, previously an MRC-funded postdoc in the lab, who has moved to U. Maryland, Baltimore to join the Serre lab.

Publications

Key publications: 

‘DNA replication dynamics during erythrocytic schizogony in the malaria parasites Plasmodium falciparum and Plasmodium knowlesi
McDonald, J., Merrick, C.J.  Plos Pathogens, in press:
(2022).

'G-quadruplex RNA motifs influence gene expression in the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum
Dumetz, F.*, Chow, E.Y.*, Harris, L.M., Umar, M.I., Jensen, A., Chung, B., Chan, T.F.*, Merrick, C.J.*, Kwok, C.K*. Nucleic Acids Research  doi.org/10.1093/nar/gkab1095 (2021).

'RecQ helicases in the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum affect genome stability, gene expression patterns and DNA replication dynamics.’
Claessens, A., Harris, L.M., Stanojcic, S., Chappell, L., Stanton, A., Kuk, N., Veneziano-Broccia, P., Sterkers, Y., Rayner, J.C., Merrick, C.J. Plos Genetics doi.org/10.1371/journal.pgen.1007490 (2018).

Key reviews:

'Checks and Balances? DNA replication and the cell cycle in Plasmodium.'
Matthews, H., Duffy C.W., Merrick, C.J. Invited review, Parasites & Vectors doi:10.1186/s13071-018-2800-1 (2018).

'G-quadruplexes in pathogens: a common route to virulence control?'
Harris, L.M. and Merrick, C.J. PLoS Pathogens 11(2):e1004562. doi: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1004562 (2015).

Other publications: 

Preprints, under review:

‘Dynamics of DNA replication during male gametogenesis in the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum
Matthews, H.; McDonald, J.; Totanes, F.I.G.; Merrick, C.J.  BioRxiv: doi.org/10.1101/2021.12.18.473304 (2021).

‘The in vivo RNA structurome of the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum, a protozoan with an A/T-rich transcriptome’  Dumetz, F., Enright, A.J., Zhao, J., Kwok, C.K., Merrick, C.J.  BioRxiv: doi.org/10.1101/2021.04.29.441925v2 (2021).

Other published papers:
 
‘DNA replication dynamics during erythrocytic schizogony in the malaria parasites Plasmodium falciparum and Plasmodium knowlesi
McDonald, J., Merrick, C.J.  Plos Pathogens, in press:
(2022).
 
'Plasmodium falciparum GBP2 is a telomere-associated protein that binds to G-quadruplex DNA and RNA’
Edwards-Smallbone, J., Jensen, A.L., Roberts, L.E., Totanes, F.I.G., Hart, S.R., Merrick, C.J. Front. Cell. Infect. Microbiol. 12:782537 doi: 10.3389/fcimb.2022.782537 (2022).
 
'G-quadruplex RNA motifs influence gene expression in the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum
Dumetz, F.*, Chow, E.Y.*, Harris, L.M., Umar, M.I., Jensen, A., Chung, B., Chan, T.F.*, Merrick, C.J.*, Kwok, C.K*. Nucleic Acids Research  doi.org/10.1093/nar/gkab1095 (2021).
 
Editorial. 'Celebrating Microbial Diversity: The Many Cell Cycles of Eukaryotic Microbes'
Merrick, C.J., Absalon, S, Brochet, M, Li, Z, Suvorova, E.S.
Front. Cell. Infect. Microbiol. | doi: 10.3389/fcimb.2021.738994 (2021).
 

'Hypnozoites in Plasmodium:do parasites parallel plants?’
Merrick, C.J, Trends in Parasitology doi.org/10.1016/j.pt.2020.11.001 (2020).

'Conserved associations between G-quadruplex-forming DNA motifs and virulence gene families in malaria parasites.'
Gage, H.L. & Merrick, C.J. BMC Genomics doi.org/10.1186/s12864-020-6625-x https://rdcu.be/b24TZ (2020).

‘Parasitic protozoa: unusual roles for G-quadruplexes in early-diverging eukaryotes.’  (REVIEW)
Dumetz, F. & Merrick, C.J. Molecules, special issue on G-quadruplexes & microorganisms. doi: 10.3390/molecules24071339 (2019).

'RecQ helicases in the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum affect genome stability, gene expression patterns and DNA replication dynamics.’
Claessens, A., Harris, L.M., Stanojcic, S., Chappell, L., Stanton, A., Kuk, N., Veneziano-Broccia, P., Sterkers, Y., Rayner, J.C., Merrick, C.J. Plos Genetics doi.org/10.1371/journal.pgen.1007490 (2018).

'Checks and Balances? DNA replication and the cell cycle in Plasmodium.' (REVIEW)
Matthews, H., Duffy C.W., Merrick, C.J. Invited review, Parasites & Vectors doi:10.1186/s13071-018-2800-1 (2018).

'ATAC-ing transcriptional mysteries in malaria parasites.’
Merrick, C.J. Preview article, Cell Host & Microbe doi:10.1016/j.chom.2018.03.016 (2018).

'G-quadruplex DNA motifs in the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum and their potential as novel antimalarial drug targets.'
Harris, L.M., Monsell, K., Noulin, F., Famodimu, M.T., Smargiasso, N., Damblon, C., Horrocks, P., Merrick, C.J.  Antimicrobial Agents & Chemotherapy

'Perspectives in Parasitology: Plasmodium falciparum.'
Merrick, C.J.  Emerging Topics in Life Sciences 'Perspectives in Parasitology' issue 1(6) 517-523 doi:10.1042/ETLS20170099 (2017).

'Single-molecule Analysis Reveals that DNA Replication Dynamics Vary Across the Course of Schizogony in the Malaria Parasite Plasmodium falciparum.'
Stanojcic, S., Kuk, N., Ullah, I., Sterkers, Y., Merrick, C.J.  Scientific Reports 7:4003 doi:10.1038/s41598-017-04407-z (2017).

'G-quadruplexes: prediction, characterization, and biological application.' (REVIEW)
Kwok, C.K. and Merrick, C.J.  Trends in Biotechnology http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tibtech.2017.06.012 (2017).

'Recombination events among virulence genes in malaria parasites are associated with G-quadruplex-forming DNA motifs.'
Stanton, A., Harris, L.M., Graham, G., Merrick, C.J.  BMC Genomics 17:859 doi:10.1186/s12864-016-3183-3 (2016).

'SEC-SANS: Size Exclusion Chromatography Combined In Situ With Small Angle Neutron Scattering.'
Jordan, A., Jacques, M., Merrick, C.J., Devos, J., Forsyth, V.T., Porcar, L., Martel, A.  Journal of Applied Crystallography 49 https://doi.org/10.1107/S1600576716016514 (2016).

'Transfection with thymidine kinase permits bromodeoxyuridine labelling of DNA replication in the human malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum.'
Merrick, C.J. Malaria Journal 14:490. doi: 10.1186/s12936-015-1014-7 (2015).

'G-quadruplexes in pathogens: a common route to virulence control?' (REVIEW)
Harris, L.M. and Merrick, C.J. PLoS Pathogens 11(2):e1004562. doi: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1004562 (2015).

'Functional analysis of sirtuin genes in multiple Plasmodium falciparum strains.’
Merrick, C.J.,
Jiang, H. R., Skillman, K.M., Samarakoon, U., Moore, R.M., Dzikowski, R., Ferdig, M.T., Duraisingh M.T.  PlosOne 10(3):e0118865. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0118865 (2015).

'A quantitative analysis of Plasmodium falciparum transfection using DNA-loaded erythrocytes.'
Hasenkamp, S., Merrick, C.J., Horrocks, P.  Molecular and Biochemical Parasitology 187(2), 117-120 (2013).

‘Epigenetic dysregulation of virulence gene expression in severe Plasmodium falciparum malaria.’
Merrick, C.J., Huttenhower, C., Buckee, C.O., Amambua-Ngwa, A., Gomez-Escobar, N.,Walther, M., Conway, D.J., Duraisingh M.T.  Journal of Infectious Diseases, 205(10), 1593-1600 (2012).

‘Plasmodium Epigenetics: What do we really know?’ (REVIEW)
Merrick, C.J. and Duraisingh, M.T.  Eukaryot Cell, 9(8), 1150-8 (2010).

‘The effect of Plasmodium falciparum Sir2a histone deacetylase on clonal and longitudinal variation in expression of the var family of virulence genes.’
Merrick, C.J., Dzikowski, R., Imamura, H., Chuang, J., Deitsch, K., Duraisingh, M.T. Int. J.Parasitol. 40, 35-43 (2010).

Plasmodium falciparum Sir2: An unusual sirtuin with dual histone deacetylase and ADP-ribosyltransferase activity.’
Merrick, C.J. and Duraisingh, M.T.  Eukaryot Cell, 6(11), 2081-2091 (2007).

‘Heterochromatin-mediated control of virulence gene expression.’ (REVIEW)    
Merrick, C.J. and Duraisingh, M.T.  Mol Microbiol. 62(3), 612-20 (2006).

‘Functional Analysis of Avr9/Cf-9 Rapidly Elicited Genes Identifies a Protein Kinase, ACIK1, that is Essential for Full Cf-9-Dependent Disease Resistance in Tomato.’
Rowland, O., Ludwig, A.A., Merrick, C.J., Baillieul, F., Tracy, F., Durrant, W.E., Fitz-Laylin, L., Nekrasov, V., Yoshioka, H. and Jones, J.D.G.  Plant Cell 17(1), 295-310 (2005).

‘Visualisation of altered replication dynamics after DNA damage in human cells.’  
Merrick, C.J., Jackson, D. and Diffley, J.F.X.  J.Biol.Chem. 279, 20067-20075 (2004).

 

Online media _________________________________________________________________

"We shall not cease from exploration": Words from the Field.  Cambridge Creative Encounters poetry collection, 2022.

'Rinse and repeat: can mosquito passage ‘reset’ malaria parasites?' Review of Spence et al. Plos Pathogens 2015.
Merrick, C.J. Bugbitten blog of Parasites & Vectors, Aug 2015

'Taking turns: how Plasmodium changes its spots.' Review of Zhang et al. Nature 2014.
Edwards-Smallbone, J. and Merrick, C.J. Bugbitten blog of Parasites & Vectors, Aug 2014.

'Throwing the switch: gametocytogenesis in malaria parasites.' Review of Kafsack et al. & Sinha at al. Nature 2014.
Horrocks, P. and Merrick, C.J. Bugbitten blog of Parasites & Vectors, Apr 2014.

'Malaria virulence genes: Complex control.’ Review of Volz et al. Cell Host & Microbe, 2012.
Merrick, C.J. British Society for Parasitology online journal club, Feb 2012.

 ‘Malaria: An old but pressing problem
Merrick, C.J.  SITN-Flash (Newsletter of the Harvard ‘Science In The News’ Network) World AIDS Day Special Issue on Infectious Diseases, Dec 1 2010.

 

Science Writing for the General Public ____________________________________________

"We shall not cease from exploration": Words from the Field.
Cambridge Creative Encounters poetry collection, 2022.

‘Coronavirus, Your questions answered’
Merrick, C.J. & Grimshaw, B  Sawston Scene village magazine, April-May 2020 issue & update in Aug-Sept issue.

‘A Scientist for all Seasons’ (A review of E.O Wilson’s ‘Biophilia’)
Merrick, C.J.   Slightly Foxed, Summer 2014 issue.

‘Adventures in achromatopsia’ (A review of Oliver Sacks’s ‘The Island of The Colourblind’)
Merrick, C.J.   Slightly Foxed, Spring 2013 issue.

‘Honest Jim and the double helix’ (A review of James Watson’s ‘The Double Helix’)
Merrick, C.J.   Slightly Foxed, Autumn 2011 issue.

‘Biophilia for beginners’ (A review of Charles Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’)
Merrick, C.J.   Slightly Foxed, Spring 2011 issue.

‘Tuberculosis: Fighting the Great White Plague.’
Merrick, C.J.  Biological Sciences Review, 21(3), 2009.

Teaching and Supervisions

Teaching: 

I lead the Parasitology option in the Part II (third year undergraduate) Pathology course.  I host undergraduate research projects annually in this option, and also take Masters and PhD students.

Research supervision: 

Please contact me by email if you are interested in PhD or postdoctoral work in my group.  If funded positions are available, they will be advertised here, otherwise I am happy to discuss possible projects for fellowship applications with qualified candidates. 

Current lab members:

  • Dr Jennifer McDonald, postdoc, from July 2018
  • Dr Francis Totanes, postdoc, from July 2018
  • Dr Holly Craven, postdoc, from Oct 2019
  • Dr Rachana Ramarao, technician (50% job share), from Nov 2021
  • Asha Dwivedy, technician (50% job share), from May 2022
  • Monique Johnson, PhD student, 2020-2023

Lab retreat 2021,  Lab Christmas lunch 2018.   


A French/American themed, socially-distanced outdoor leaving do, 2020.

Previous lab members:

  • Technicians
  • Anders Jensen, 2018-2021 (subsequently deputy lab manager, Cambridge Pathology Dept.)
  • Dr Lisa Rump, 2017-2018
  • PhD students
  • Dr Linda Onyeka Anagu, 2015-2019 (on secondment from lectureship at Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Nigeria)
  • Dr Ashley J. Jordan, 2012-2016 (subsequently postdoc at Institut Laue-Langevin Grenoble).
  • Masters students
  • Cambridge:
  • 2019-2020: Louise DeThomasson, MPhil
  • (Keele, 2012-17):
  • 6 MSc students on programmes including MSc in Molecular Parasitology and Vector Biology, MSc in Scientific Research Training abroad, and ERASMUS.  3 students (Adriana Adolfi, Rinal Sahputra & Pamela Veneziano-Broccia) progressed to PhDs at LSTM, Manchester and Trieste.
  • 1 MPhil, Dr Katelyn Monsell - intercalated year in research during medical training at Keele Medical School.
  • Undergraduates
  • Cambridge:
  • 2021-22: Kate Tilley (Natural Sciences project student)
  • 2020-21: Daniel Nash (Pathology Society scholarship summer student, 2021, subsequently PhD student at Cambridge)
  • 2019-20: Christopher Cannon (Natural Sciences degree 2020, subsequently PhD student at Nottingham)
  • 2018-19: Lydia Roberts (Medical degree 2019); Hunter Gage (U. Madison SCORE programme summer student; subsequently Medical school at UCSD)
  • Keele (2011-2017):
  • 20 undergraduate students, including 4 progressing to PhD/MSc degrees.
University Associate Professor
Division of Microbiology and Parasitology
Dr Catherine J. Merrick

Contact Details

208, Molteno Building,
Department of Pathology,
Tennis Court Road,
Cambridge,
CB2 1QP.
01223 333330
Takes PhD students
Not available for consultancy