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


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

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