Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research

Anja Spang

Tenure track Scientist
Phone number
+31 (0)222 369 526
Tenure track Scientist


  • Microbial ecology
  • Molecular evolution
  • Archaeal genomics, metabolism and evolution
  • Microbial symbiosis and Eukaryogenesis
  • Metagenomics, comparative genomics and phylogenomics



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 in 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 eukaryogenesis (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). In collaboration with the Ettema lab, which is focusing on further extending the current understanding of the evolution of eukaryotes, we seek to elucidate the metabolic potential of the Asgard superphylum.

The main focus of my research group at NIOZ will however be to study archaea affiliating with the tentative DPANN superphylum, a group of archaea recently discovered using metagenomics approaches. DPANN archaea comprise members with extremely small genomes and cell sizes and include the so far only known parasites within the archaea. Representatives of this extremely diverse group seem to be widespread globally and occur in most thinkable environments on Earth. Interestingly, genomes of various and phylogenetically diverse DPANN archaea have also been reconstructed from marine sediments and water samples. However, thus far the function and importance of DPANN archaea in marine ecosystems and food webs is unknown. In addition, while initial analyses suggest that many members of the DPANN are dependent on syntrophic or symbiotic interactions with other organisms, knowledge about the nature of these interactions as well as the metabolic potential of these organisms is scarce. Finally, the evolution of DPANN lineages and their phylogenetic placement is currently unclear. Using a combination of different approaches such as metagenomics, phylogenomics and comparative genomics as well as microbial ecology techniques and cultivation, my research team is addressing fundamental questions on the extend, functional importance and evolution of symbiosis in (DPANN) archaea, with a particular focus on little explored dark oceanic regions.

Finally, I have an interest in the early diversification of microbial metabolic and enzymatic diversity, and additional research topics focus among others on the evolution of methanogenesis/ methane oxidation in Archaea, the diversity of NiFe-Hydrogenases etc.. The vast amount of recently discovered microbial taxa have started to unveil a more complex evolutionary history of microbial enzymatic diversity than assumed previously and revealed a large amount of novel enzymes of unknown function. Certainly, the available metagenome data represents a gold mine not only for an increased understanding of microbial metabolism and evolution but also for the functioning of ecosystems such as the dark ocean.

Education & research experience

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


January 2017: NWO Women In Science Excel (WISE) tenure track award providing five years of funding for establishing an independent research group

December 2016: Tenure  track position at NIOZ, Netherlands Institute for Sea Research,

November 2016: VR starting grant from the Swedish Research council (Vetenskapsrådet) (duration: four years)

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

December 2013:  Award of Excellence 2013 for my PhD thesis from the Austrian Minister of Science and Research

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



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