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.
‘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.’
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.Read more +
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:
Nina Dombrowski: https://www.nioz.nl/en/about/organisation/staff/nina-dombrowski
Joshua Hamm: https://www.nioz.nl/en/about/organisation/staff/joshua-hamm
- Phd student
Tara Mahendrarajah: https://www.nioz.nl/en/about/organisation/staff/tara-mahendrarajah
- Master student:
Kim van Maldegem: https://www.nioz.nl/en/about/organisation/staff/kim-van-maldegem
Scott Maxson: https://www.nioz.nl/en/about/organisation/staff/scott-maxson
Since September 2017: Tenure track researcher at NIOZ, Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (80%) &
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
2021-2026: ERC starting grant 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.
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
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