Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research
Royal Netherlands
Institute for Sea Research
Phone number
+31 (0)222 369 526
Tenure track Scientist
  • Evolutionary microbiologist
  • Archaeal genomics, metabolism and evolution
  • Microbial symbiosis and Eukaryogenesis
  • Metagenomics, comparative genomics, phylogenomics, cultivation

Dr. Anja Spang

Tenure track Scientist

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. Our group has 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 to understand 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 form an early branch in the tree of life. They may not only have played an important role in the early evolution of life but are also thought to have a big impact on other organisms in the environment. Just like viruses, DPANN need a host organism to get nutrients for growth. Therefore, we cannot understand microbial communities and the history of life on Earth without taking into account the DPANN archaea.’

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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 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). 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 (Spang and Offre, 2019) 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. In particular, we are interested in illuminating the evolutionary and ecological role of DPANN archaea, which comprise a large radiation of putative archaeal symbionts suggested to form an early diverging branch in the ToL (Dombrowski et al., 2019).

I) Provide insights into the biology and evolution of archaea affiliating with the tentative DPANN superphylum, a group of archaea recently discovered using metagenomics approaches (Rinke et al., 2013; Castelle et al., 2015).

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 (Petitjean et al., 2014; Raymann et al., 2015; Williams et al., 2017).

II) Shed  light into the evolution and diversification of archaeal metabolism (reviewed in Adam et al., 2017 and Spang et al., 2017).

The origin and evolution of important metabolic features of Archaea is poorly understood and recent metagenomic studies have indicated that our view on the role of Archaea in biogeochemical cycles is extremely biased towards cultivated representatives. The available metagenome data represents a gold mine to deepen our insights into aspects such as the evolution of methanogenesis/methane oxidation, hydrogen-based metabolisms, autorophic carbon fixation pathways and hydrocarbon degradation and will allow to generate testable hypothesis on the functional role of the various archaeal lineages and their biotechnological potential. Furthermore, this data, together with novel approaches to reconstruct protein history evolution (Williams, et al., 2017), will allow to shed insights into the dark ages of cellular evolution.

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


Google scholar

Contact me:

email: or
twitter: anjspa1



Linked news

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…
Friday 05 April 2019
Researchers redefine scenario for the origin of complex life
How did complex life on Earth emerge about two billion years ago? An international team of researchers from Sweden, United States, Australia and The Netherlands, now provides new insights. In a study, published in Nature Microbiology this week, the…
Friday 20 January 2017
WISE-award for Anja Spang to dive into novel micro-world of Archaea
Very recent genomic research has shown that a group of novel “marvel” Archaea are the most likely evolutionary ancestors of all higher plants and animals. Dr. Anja Spang pursued this research in the team of Thijs Ettema in Sweden, after her cum laude…

NIOZ publications

  • 2020
    Dharamshi, J.E.; Tamarit, D.; Eme, L.; Stairs, C.W.; Martijn, J.; Homa, F.; Jorgensen, S.L.; Spang, A.; Ettema, T.J.G. (2020). Marine sediments illuminate Chlamydiae diversity and evolution. Curr. Biol. 30(6): 1032-1048.e7.
    Dombrowski, N.; Williams, T.A.; Sun, J.; Woodcroft, B.J.; Lee, J.-H.; Minh, B.Q.; Rinke, C.; Spang, A. (2020). Undinarchaeota illuminate DPANN phylogeny and the impact of gene transfer on archaeal evolution. Nature Comm. 11: Article number: 3939.
    Martijn, J.; Schön, M.E.; Lind, A.E.; Vosseberg, J.; Williams, T.A.; Spang, A.; Ettema, T.J.G. (2020). Hikarchaeia demonstrate an intermediate stage in the methanogen-to-halophile transition. Nature Comm. 11: 5490.
    Murray, A. E.; Freudenstein, J.; Gribaldo, S.; Hatzenpichler, R.; Hugenholtz, P.; Kämpfer, P.; Konstantinidis, K. T.; Lane, C. E.; Papke, R. T.; Parks, D. H.; Rossello-Mora, R.; Stott, M. B.; Sutcliffe, I. C.; Thrash, J. C.; Venter, S. N.; Whitman, W. B.; Acinas, S. G.; Amann, R. I.; Anantharaman, K.; Armengaud, J.; Baker, B. J.; Barco, R. A.; Bode, H. B.; Boyd, E. S.; Brady, C. L.; Carini, P.; Chain, P. S. G.; Colman, D. R.; DeAngelis, K. M.; de los Rios, Ma. A.; Estrada-de los Santos, P.; Dunlap, C. A.; Eisen, J. A.; Emerson, D.; Ettema, T. J. G.; Eveillard, D.; Girguis, P. R.; Hentschel, U.; Hollibaugh, J. T.; Hug, L. A.; Inskeep, W. P.; Ivanova, E. P.; Klenk, H.-P.; Li, W.-J.; Lloyd, K. G.; Löffler, F. E.; Makhalanyane, T. P.; Moser, D. P.; Nunoura, T.; Palmer, M.; Parro, V.; Pedrós-Alió, C.; Probst, A. J.; Smits, T. H. M.; Steen, A. D.; Steenkamp, E. T.; Spang, A.; Stewart, F. J.; Tiedje, J. M.; Vandamme, P.; Wagner, M.; Wang, F.-P.; Hedlund, B. P.; Reysenbach, A.-L. (2020). Roadmap for naming uncultivated Archaea and Bacteria. Nature Microbiology 5(8): 987-994.
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    Reysenbach, A.-L.; St. John, E.; Meneghin, J.; Flores, G.E.; Podar, M.; Dombrowski, N.; Spang, A.; L'Haridon, S.; Humphris, S.E.; De Ronde, C.E.J.; Caratori-Tontini, F.; Tivey, M.; Stucker, V.K.; Stewart, L.C.; Diehl, A.; Bach, W. (2020). Complex subsurface hydrothermal fluid mixing at a submarine arc volcano supports distinct and highly diverse microbial communities. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 117(51): 32627-32638.
    Stairs, C.W.; Sharamshi, J.E.; Tamarit, D.; Eme, L.; Jorgensen, S.L.; Spang, A.; Ettema, T.J.G. (2020). Chlamydial contribution to anaerobic metabolism during eukaryotic evolution. Science Advances 6(35): eabb7258.
  • 2019
    Bäckström, D.; Yutin, N.; Jorgensen, S.L.; Dharamshi, J.; Homa, F.; Zaremba-Niedwiedzka, K.; Spang, A.; Wolf, Y.I.; Koonin, E.V.; Ettema, T.J.G. (2019). Virus genomes from deep sea sediments expand the ocean megavirome and support independent origins of viral gigantism. Mbio 10(2): e02497-18.
    Blohs, M.; Mahnert, A.; Spang, A.; Dombrowski, N.; Krupovica, M.; Klingl, A. (2019). Archaea – An Introduction, in: Schmidt, R.M. Encyclopedia of Microbiology. pp. 243-252.
    Camprubí, E.; de Leeuw, J.W.; House, C.H.; Raulin, F.; Russell, M.J.; Spang, A.; Tirumalai, M.R.; Westall, F. (2019). The emergence of life. Space Science Reviews 215(8).
    Dombrowski, N.; Lee, J.-H.; Williams, T.A.; Offre, P.; Spang, A. (2019). Genomic diversity, lifestyles and evolutionary origins of DPANN archaea. FEMS Microbiol. Lett. 366(2): 1-12.
    Schwank, K.; Bornemann, T.L.V.; Dombrowski, N.; Spang, A.; Banfield, J.F.; Probst, A. (2019). An archaeal symbiont-host association from the deep terrestrial subsurface. ISME J. 13(8): 2135-2139.
    Seitz, K.W.; Dombrowski, N.; Eme, L.; Spang, A.; Lombard, J.; Sieber, J.R.; Teske, A.P.; Ettema, T.J.G.; Baker, B.J. (2019). Asgard archaea capable of anaerobic hydrocarbon cycling. Nature Comm. 10(1): 1822.
    Spang, A.; Offre, P. (2019). Towards a systematic understanding of differences between archaeal and bacterial diversity. Environmental Microbiology Reports 11(1): 9-12.
    Spang, A.; Stairs, C.W.; Dombrowski, N.; Eme, L.; Lombard, J.; Caceres, E.F.; Greening, C.; Baker, B.J.; Ettema, T.J.G. (2019). Proposal of the reverse flow model for the origin of the eukaryotic cell based on comparative analyses of Asgard archaeal metabolism. Nature Microbiology 4: 1138–1148.
  • 2018
    Kellner, S.; Spang, A.; Offre, P.; Szöllosi; Petitjean, C.; Williams, T.A. (2018). Genome size evolution in the Archaea. Emerging Topics in Life Sciences 2(4): ETLS20180021.
    Narrowe, A.B.; Spang, A.; Stairs, C.W.; Caceres, E.F.; Baker, B.J.; Miller, C.S.; Ettema, T.J.G. (2018). Complex evolutionary history of translation elongation factor 2 and diphthamide biosynthesis in archaea and parabasalids. Genome Biology and Evolution 10(9): 2380-2393.
    Raina, J.-B.; Eme, L.; Pollock, F.J.; Spang, A.; Archibald, J.M.; Williams, T.A. (2018). Symbiosis in the microbial world: from ecology to genome evolution. Biology Open 7(2): bio032524.

Linked projects

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