Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research
Phone number
+31 (0)222 36 9526
Research Leader
  • Evolutionary microbiologist
  • Archaeal genomics, metabolism and evolution
  • Microbial symbiosis and Eukaryogenesis
  • Metagenomics, comparative genomics, phylogenomics, cultivation
Read the interview with Anja Spang in the NIOZ Annual Report 2020

Prof. Dr. Anja Spang

Research Leader

Archaea - a window into the history of life

Evolutionary microbiologist Dr Anja Spang investigates archaea. ‘These are the single-celled microorganisms which form one of two primary domains – the other being Bacteria. Initially, the Archaea were mainly known for their ability to survive in extreme environments. But it has since become clear that they occur almost everywhere on Earth. They are not only found on our bodies, but also in soils, lakes, the ocean and in sediments.

The basis of all “higher” life

‘Although the Archaea form a primary branch in the tree of life just like Bacteria, they are much less studied so far. For example, many details regarding their role in natural ecosystems and in the evolution of life remain unknown. I have contributed to recent research which suggests that the complex eukaryotic cells - which comprise organisms such as algae, protists, plants, fungi and animals - originated from a symbiosis between archaea and bacteria.’

Evolution of archaea in marine ecosystems

With my research team at NIOZ, we now aim to further illuminate the role of Archaea in life’s evolution and elucidate how symbiotic interactions have shaped microbial diversity. Furthermore, we are interested in understanding how symbiotic archaea contribute to the structure of microbial communities, especially in the poorly investigated marine environments such as the deep waters, sediments and hydrothermal vents. The DPANN archaea are particularly interesting in this context because they comprise a very diverse group of symbiotic archaea, which may  may have played an important role in the evolution of life. Furthermore, DPANN, just like viruses, need a host organism for growth and may play important roles in microbial food webs.

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Research interests

I have always been fascinated by the evolution of life on Earth, eukaryogenesis and the role symbiosis has played in the major transitions of life. My past research on Archaea  has been driven by the aim of getting a better understanding of the diversity and genomic potential of Archaea and their relationship to Bacteria and eukaryotes. For example, during the past years, my post-doctoral research in the lab of Thijs Ettema at Uppsala University (see links below), focused on the investigation of Lokiarchaeota (Spang et al., 2015) and related lineages, which together comprise the Asgard superphylum and have proven to be key for our understanding of the eukaryotic cell (Zaremba-Niedzwiedzka et al., 2017). We could show that Asgard archaea form a monophyletic group with Eukaryotes and encode various eukaryotic signature proteins, suggesting that they have been important in the early stages of the origin of the eukaryotic cell (Spang et al., 2015, Zaremba et al., 2017, Spang et al., 2017, Eme et al., 2017). The recent investigation of the metabolic potential of the Asgard archaea in collaboration with the Ettema lab, has recently led us to propose an updated scenario on the origin of the eukaryotic cell - the reverse  syntrophy hypothesis - from a symbiosis between an hydrogen or electron producing Asgard-archaeal ancestor and (a) bacterial partner(s) (Spang et al., 2019).

With my research team at NIOZ, we aim to further illuminate the role of Archaea in the evolution of life on Earth and to elucidate the extent to which syntrophic interactions and symbioses have enabled major transitions in the Tree of life (ToL) and contribute to the structure and evolution of microbial communities.

My research aligns with the new science plan of NIOZ, which addresses pressing questions concerning the past and future functioning of seas and oceans. In particular, as an evolutionary microbiologist, I have a key interest in contributing to a better understanding of the history of life on Earth as a mean to better constrain the future evolution of life in an ever-changing world. A major focus of my research is to establish the role of archaeal and bacterial symbionts in the earliest evolution of cells, the subsequent diversification of these cells that led to the astounding diversity of microbial life on Earth as well as their role in the origin of eukaryotes. Furthermore, I am studying the impact of extant symbionts on the diversification of life in an ever-changing world, their impact on host ecology and evolution and their importance in extant nutrient cycles. For example, it has recently been suggested that archaeal symbionts belonging to the DPANN archaea play antagonistic roles in food webs similar to viruses and phages. Yet, in contrast to the well-established role of viruses in microbial food webs, DPANN symbionts have so far not been taken into account in ecological models. To obtain a better understanding of the functioning of marine food webs, it will be crucial to determine who are the hosts of the extremely diverse DPANN archaea in marine waters and sediments as well as elucidate their impact on host ecology and evolution and organic matter recycling. Besides my major focus on Archaea, I am also involved in or driving projects on the evolution of Bacteria and Eukaryotes. For example, in the frame of a UU-NIOZ collaboration, we  study the diversification of eukaryotic metabolisms in light of Earth history as a basis to make predictions on the future evolution of eukaryotic life in changing marine environments.



This research would not be possible without my great team, currently including the following talented scientists:

- post-docs

Joshua Hamm:

Oleksandr Maistrenko:

Florian Mayer:

Carlos Santana Molina:

Dina Castillo Boukhchtaber:

- Phd student

Tara Mahendrarajah:

Wen-Cong Huang:

- Previous members

- Nina Dombrowski (2018-2023)

- Scott Maxson, technical assistant (2021-2023)

- Gerben de Zwaan (master student, 2022)

- Josje Romeijn (master student, 2022)

- Kim van Maldegem (master student, 2021)

- Jun-Hoe Lee (post-doc, 2017-2019)


Education & research experience

Since 12/2022: Special Chair Professor in 'Symbioses in Evolution' at the University of Amsterdam

Since 11/2022: Research Leader at NIOZ, Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (80%)

1/2021-10/2022: Senior Scientist at NIOZ, Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (100%)

9/2017-12/2021: Tenure track researcher at NIOZ, Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (80%) (tenured Senior Scientist from 3/2021) & VR-funded researcher at Uppsala University, Department of Cell- and Molecular Biology (20%)

5/2013-8/2017: Postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Cell- and Molecular Biology, Science for Life Laboratory, Uppsala University, Sweden; Group Leader: Dr. Thijs Ettema
Main topics: Archaeal roots of Eukaryotes, Comparative genomics of (Asgard) archaea

1/2009-5/2013: PhD studies in microbial comparative genomics in the Department of Genetics in Ecology at the University of Vienna (Austria)
Topic: Genome Analyses and Comparative Genomics of Thaumarchaeota

2007-2008: Master studies in microbial genomics, University of Bergen (Norway);                                             Topic: Metagenomics of archaeal viruses from Icelandic hot springs


2023-2026: NWO M-grant for aquatic symbioses

05/2023: Ammodo Science Award for fundamental research

2021-2026: ERC starting grant (947317, ASymbEL) to study to address the role of Archaeal Symbionts in the Evolution of Life.

2021-2024: UU-NIOZ award.

2020-2023: Symbiosis Model System Award from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

2020-2023: Eukaryogenesis Award from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

2020-2023: Eukaryogenesis Award from the Simmons Foundation.

2018-2021: NWO Women In Science Excel (WISE) tenure track award providing five years of funding for establishing an independent research group

2017-2021: VR starting grant from the Swedish Research council (Vetenskapsrådet) (duration: four years)

2013-2016: Marie-Curie Intra-European Fellowship by the European Commission (duration: two years, starting date autumn 2014)

2010-2012: Two years of research funded by a DOC-fFORTE fellowship from the Austrian Academy of Sciences


Google scholar

Contact me:

email: or
twitter: anjspa1

Linked news

Monday 29 April 2024
Archaea can be picky parasites
A parasite that not only feeds of its host, but also makes the host change its own metabolism and thus biology. NIOZ microbiologists Su Ding and Joshua Hamm, Nicole Bale, Jaap Sinninghe Damsté and Anja Spang have shown this for the very first time in…
Tuesday 06 February 2024
Anja Spang Professor of Symbioses in Evolution
Dr. Anja Spang, named Professor by special appointment of Symbioses in Evolution at the Faculty of Science of the University of Amsterdam (UvA), delivers her inaugural lecture on February 9th 2024, titled: ''A window into the deep history of cellular…
Tuesday 21 November 2023
Looking for ‘LUCA’ and the timing of cellular evolution
LUCA, the ‘last universal common ancestor’ of all living organisms, lived 4.32 to at most 4.52 billion years ago. This is indicated by a study from NIOZ biologists Tara Mahendrarajah and senior author Anja Spang, with collaborating partners from…
Tuesday 11 July 2023
NWO M-grant for aquatic symbioses
The NWO Domain Board Science has approved eighteen grant applications in the Open Competition Domain Science-M programme. M-grants are intended for innovative, high-quality, fundamental research and/or studies involving matters of scientific urgency.
Thursday 06 April 2023
Lauded microbiologist Jill Banfield visits NIOZ
Earth scientist Professor Jill Banfield of the University of California at Berkeley received the Van Leeuwenhoek Medal yesterday, during the annual meeting of the Royal Dutch Society for Microbiology. This award for influential (micro)biologists has…
Tuesday 07 March 2023
NIOZ researcher Anja Spang wins 2023 Ammodo Science Award
Ammodo today announced that Tazuko van Berkel, Stan Brouns, Tatiana Filatova, Jingyuan Fu, Merel Keijzer, Daniël Lakens, Hugo Snippert and Anja Spang are the winners of the Ammodo Science Award for fundamental research 2023. The laureates each…
Monday 10 May 2021
Rooted tree key to understanding bacterial evolution
The findings of a new study, published in the journal Science last week, demonstrate how integrating vertical descent and horizontal gene transfer can be used to infer the root of the bacterial tree and the nature of the last bacterial common…
Wednesday 02 September 2020
ERC grant for ‘mysterious world of archaeal symbionts’ and the evolution of life
NIOZ researcher Anja Spang receives one of the highly-competitive Starting Grants from the European Research Council (ERC) for her research on the early evolution of cellular life. The awarded project ‘Archaeal Symbionts in the Evolution of Life’…
Monday 10 August 2020
Previously undescribed lineage of Archaea illuminates microbial evolution
In a publication in Nature Communications last Friday, NIOZ scientists Nina Dombrowski and Anja Spang and their collaboration partners describe a previously unknown phylum of aquatic Archaea that are likely dependent on partner organisms for growth…
Wednesday 29 July 2020
Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation award for model of aquatic symbiosis
Today The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation has granted a Symbiosis Model Systems award to an international consortium consisting of Dr. Anja Spang (NIOZ), Dr. Laura Villanueva (NIOZ), Dr. Dina Grohmann (University of Regensburg), Dr. Harald Huber…

NIOZ publications

Linked projects

UUNIOZ_The origin and diversification of eukaryotic metabolisms
Anja Spang
Utrecht University
Project duration
1 Jan 2021 - 31 Dec 2025