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Principal Investigator

Heribert Hirt

Prof. Hirt’s research is focused on how plants can survive under abiotic or biotic stress conditions. The main interest lies in how protein kinases can reprogram gene expression. At KAUST, Prof. Hirt is establishing two research groups. One research group focuses on how MAP kinases target chromatin to prime stress tolerance at both the genetic and the epigenetic level. The other research group searches for rhizosphere microbes of desert plants and investigates their potential and mechanisms to induce stress tolerance in plants. Although the major part of these two projects is carried out in Arabidopsis, the generated knowledge will be applied to crop plants with the aim to provide sustainable solutions to reestablish agriculture in arid regions or under extreme environmental conditions.

Professional Profile
  • 2014-now Director, Center for Desert Agriculture, KAUST, Saudi Arabia
  • 2008-2013 Director, URGV Plant Genomics, Evry, France
  • 2006-2007 Head of Dept. of Plant Mol. Biology, Univ. Vienna, Austria
  • 2002-2004 Vice-Director, Gregor Mendel Institute, Austrian Academy of Sciences, Vienna, Austria
  • 2001-2003 Dean of graduate studies, Vienna Biocenter, Austria
  • 1991-now Professor of Genetics, Univ. Vienna, Austria
  • 1989-2009 Group leader, Univ. Vienna, Austria
  • 1988-1989 Post-doc, Univ. of Oxford, UK
  • 1987-1988 Post-doc, Med. Univ. Vienna, Austria
Educational Profile
  • 1987 - Dr. rer. Nat. (University of Vienna)
  • 1987 - PhD thesis, Inst. of Biochemistry, Vienna / Topic: Isolation and Characterization of the Human Growth Hormone Gene Locus.
  • 1983 - Mag. rer. nat. (Univ. of Vienna).
  • 1983 - Diploma thesis, Inst. of Biochemistry, Vienna / Topic: Characterization of Microtubule-Associated Proteins.
  • 1981 - Study of Biochemistry, Univ. of Vienna, Austria.
  • 1978 - B.Sc.(Distinction).
  • 1978 - Study of Biochemistry, Univ. of Cape Town South Africa.
  • 1975 - Johannes Kepler Gymnasium Reutlingen, Germany
  • 2014 - ISI Highly Cited Researcher
  • 2011 - King Saud Distinguished Fellow
  • 2010 - ISI Highly Cited Researcher
  • 2008 - Elected EMBO Member
  • 2006 - Elected Member of Pauli Institute
  • 2001 - Wittgenstein Price
  • 1993 - Biochemical Society Price
  • 1988 EMBO Fellowship
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Team Coordinator

Maged Saad


Being a molecular biologist by training, I have developed a deep interest in Microbial genetics and bacterial adaptation to different niches. I am very fascinating by the dual life style of different bacteria as well different mechanisms used by bacteria to interact with different host and modulate the immune response of the host. Furthermore, the great potential of microbes in benefit of the humanity, as I believe the Microbes will be a solution of number of the global challenges.

My interest in Microbes started when I was a master student and got the chance to have a training period in BBA, Germany, and learn about the different diagnostic techniques to detection microbial infection of crop plants e.g. viruses, bacteria and plant fungus. Afterward, My research interest was more directed to the beneficial microbes with special emphases of symbiotic Nitrogen fixing bacteria named Sinorhizobium fredii NGR234, and how this bacteria could tune the plant defense system via number of effector protein secreted through the type three secretion systems (T3SS) which mainly used by pathogenic bacteria to onset diseases. Abolition of secretion of all or specific effector significantly alters the nodulation abilities of NGR234 on many of its hosts. To get more insight of the mechanisms of the adaptation of Nitrogen fixing bacteria and overcome the plant immune system, I join group of LIPM, France, as postdoc fellow. I applied different genomic and transcriptomics tools to understand and explore the rhizobia diversity and learn the common genetic functions required for symbiosis and pathogenesis. We succeed to complete the first genome sequence of a β-proteobacterial nitrogen-fixing symbiont of legumes, Cupriavidus taiwanensis LMG19424. Based on the genomic information we achieved to extend the host range of the rhizobia to be different legume host by modulating T3SS.

Professional Profile
  • 2014-now Research Scientist, Center for Desert Agriculture, KAUST, Saudi Arabia
  • 2008-2014 Maître Assistant, Faculty of Sciences, University of Geneva, Switzerland
  • 2005-2007 Postdoctoral fellow, French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA), Toulouse, France.
  • 2005-2005 Postdoctoral fellow, Faculty of Sciences, University of Geneva, Switzerland.
  • 1999-2004 PhD fellow, Faculty of Sciences, University of Geneva, Switzerland
  • 1997-1998 MS fellow, Biochemistry and Plant Viruses Institute (BBA), Braunschweig, Germany
  • 1995-1997 Research Assistant, Agriculture Genetic Engineering Research institute (AGERI)
  • 1993-1995 Demonstrator, Faculty of Science, Ain Sham University, Cairo, Egypt.
Educational Profile
  • 2004 - Ph.D in Biology, University of Geneva, Switzerland
  • 2000 - Ph.D student in Department of Botanic and Plant Biology, LBMPS, Geneva, Switzerland
  • 1998 - Student fellowship given by (UNDP) at Plant Viruses Institute (BBA), Braunschweig, Germany
  • 1998 - Master degree in Biochemistry, Ain shams University, Cairo, Egypt
  • 1993 - Bachelor degree in Biochemistry, Ain Shams University, Cairo, Egypt
  • 2006 - INRA (Toulouse, France), Attending the 6th European Nitrogen Fixation Conference” Arhus, Denmark
  • 2004 - Swiss National Science Foundation (Bern, Switzerland): Support fellowship for a training course in the laboratory of Prof. J. Mansfield, Imperial College, Wye, UK.
  • 2002 - The Academic Society of Geneva (Geneva, Switzerland): Award to attend “The 11th and 12th MPMI meeting” (St. Petersburg, Russia and Cancun, Mexico).
  • 1999 - Swiss National Science Foundation (Bern, Switzerland): PhD fellowship (Geneva, Switzerland).
  • 1997 - The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Award to attend a training course of Hyprdoma technology and plant virus interaction diagnostic tools in BBA, Brownschweig, Germany
Post-doctoral Fellow

Cristina Andrés-Barrao

Born and raised in Zaragoza, Spain, I was since my early childhood fascinated by sciences, with the biggest interest in biological sciences. I obtained a Bachelor Degree in Chemistry at the University of Zaragoza, what I completed with a Master Degree in Organic Chemistry and another in Biochemistry.

To continue my academic formation and acquire the international experience that was avid, I was awarded with a European Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students (Erasmus Mundus) Scholarship that brought me to Geneva, Switzerland. There, I join the group of Dr. Francois Barja, at the department of Plant Biology at the University of Geneva (UNIGE), to work with Dr. Marta Cotado (PhD student at that time) in a project related with the study of cytoskeletal proteins in the fungus Neurospora crassa. Already experiencing an increasing interest in microbiology, I decided to accept an offer of Dr. Barja and start a PhD on a relatively new research line of the group, acetic acid bacteria (AAB), studying the characterization of bacterial strains involved in acetic acid fermentation, their identification and taxonomy, and the resistance of these strains to high percentages of acetic acid. I applied molecular biology techniques and basic comparative genomics and had the pleasure to attend international conferences in Switzerland and Japan (Best Poster Award at the The 2nd International Conference on Acetic Acid Bacteria in 2008), and successfully defended my PhD thesis in September 2012.

After a short period as Postdoc in Dr. Barja group, I moved to Tokyo, Japan, thanks to a Postdoctoral fellowship awarded by the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS), to join the group of Prof. Akiko Okamoto-Kainuma, at the Tokyo University of Agriculture (NODAI). There, I continued my research on AAB working on a project that was mainly focused on the use of transcriptomics (RNA-Seq) to study the metabolism modifications of AAB during in vitro acetic acid fermentation mimicking the industrial production of vinegar.

At this stage, I had a renewed interest in extremophile microorganisms, and I was also keen to move forward to new fields, so I decided to accept an offer of Dr. Maged M. Saad, a previous colleague at the University in Geneva, to re-direct my research towards the study of plant growth-promoting bacteria (PGPB). In 2015 I joined the group of Prof. Heribert Hirt, at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), to work on a research project (Darwin21, that aims to isolate and thoroughly characterize PGPB from desert endogenous plants, with the final goal to apply PGPB as alternative biofertilizer to improve agriculture in desert and arid regions.


Kirti Bhatt

In 2008, I obtained my Bachelor’s degree in Biotechnology from the University of Kurukshetra, India. From my Bachelor’s degree, I developed an interest for molecular biology particularly in microbes and plants. Following my interest, for my M.Sc., I worked on molecular diversity of Rhizobium under arid and semi-arid regions of Haryana and obtained M.Sc. degree in Agricultural Microbiology from Haryana Agricultural University, India in 2010. For a short period, I worked as a Microbiologist in a Bio-fertilizer unit for farmers, where I was studying effect of Rhizobium inoculation on nodulation of chickpea crop. In 2017, I finished my PhD from Stellenbosch University, South Africa. During the course of my PhD, I worked on Yeast Molecular Biology and acquired the knowledge of how different yeasts interact with each other at the molecular level and what oxygenation has an impact on yeast transcriptome and metabolome in a mixed population. Continuing with my interest, apparently I am working as a post-doctoral fellow in Center for Desert Agriculture, KAUST with Professor Heribert Hirt. Currently, I am focusing on beneficial impact of microbes on plants under stress conditions and hunting for mechanisms involved in plant-microbial interactions.

PhD Student

Abdul Aziz Eida

Abdul Aziz Eida is from Beirut, Lebanon who was born and raised in Al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia. He completed his undergraduate studies at Jacobs University Bremen in Germany where he obtained a B.Sc. in Biotechnology. He then received his M.Sc. in Bioscience from KAUST in 2015 where he is currently pursuing his PhD. His research interests lie in the area of microbiology and plant biology, in both laboratory and field settings. His current project focuses on identifying the mechanisms involved in salt tolerance promotion of A. thaliana by plant growth promoting (PGP) bacteria from desert plants collected from Jizan, Saudi Arabia, and how these bacteria can then be applied for agricultural field applications on crop plants, such as wheat and barley. His work involves 16S rRNA gene sequence analysis (microbiome), chemical soil analysis, biochemical assays for PGP traits, phenotypic characterization of plants, genomics, and bacteria/plant transcriptomics. He has a keen interest for the phosphate solubilization aspect of PGP bacteria, and has recently published a book chapter on the challenges faced in field application of phosphate-solubilizing bacteria.

PhD Student

Khairiah Alwutayd

Khairiah Alwutayd is a Lecturer, in the Princess Nora Bint Abdul Rahman University and currently she is conducted her PhD studies in Professor Hirt group with a major interest in plant associated microbes and the role in tolerant to abiotic stress, with special emphasis on drought stress. Khairiah holds a M.Sc. in in Bioscience from King Abdullah University for science and Technology and B.Sc in Biology Science College, Princess Nora Bint Abdul Rahman University.

PhD Student

Amal Khalaf Alghamdi

Amal Khalaf Alghamdi is a lecturer at King Saud University (KSU), College of Science, Department of Botany and Microbiology. She has been granted At the Hirt Laboratory at KAUST the opportunity to do the PhD studies on the beneficial effect of the bacteria on plants as well as to study the genomic sequence of the beneficial bacteria. Amal earned a bachelor degree from King Abdul Aziz University, and a Master degree in in Microbiology from King Saud University. During her studies she received several appreciation awards from both King Abdulaziz University and King Saud University’s.

PhD Student

Hanin Alzubaidy

Hanin Alzubaidy is a PhD student who works with plants and plant associated microorganism to help plants grow better under abiotic stress (drought, salt, and heat) as about 80% of annual crop loss is due abiotic stress. Hanin believes that plant associated microorganism can be an eco-friendly solution for global food sustainability. Hanin has garnered an EMBO practical course Plant microbiota at Max Plank Institute for Plant Breeding Research. Hanin is awarded as first place winner of the 2017 WEP (winter enrichment program) science fair category of KAUST graduate students, post docs and researchers. Hanin holds a M.Sc. in chemical and biological engineering from King Abdullah University for science and Technology and B.Sc in biochemistry.

PhD Student

Rewaa Jalal

Mrs. Rewaa Jalal, PhD student since 2014. At the moment is part of Prof.Heribert Hirt team who is working on the DARWIN21 Projects. The focus of her study research is Genes, its role, interaction and how it will be used to breed or bioengineer the next generation of stress-resistant crop plants.In 2012, Mrs. Jalal completed her MSc degree in plant science at King Abdulaziz University (KAU). She has been teaching variety of Bioscience topics to graduate students in (KAU) for five years. Her learning passion has been always focused toward understanding more about plant bacteria interactions and plant responses to adverse environmental conditions such as salinity.

PhD Student

Wiam Alsharif

Ms. Wiam Alsharif has received a bachelor degree in genetic and biotechnology from King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah in 2016. Currently, she has received her master's degree in King Abdullah University of Science and Technology and now she is pursuing her PhD degree. She has joined the Darwin 21 team in 2017 to follow her interests in understanding the microbial-plant interactions on the physiological as well as the molecular levels.