Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research
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

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.

Read more +


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

Nina Dombrowski:

Joshua Hamm:

Oleksandr Maistrenko:

Florian Mayer:

Carlos Santana Molina:

- Phd student

Tara Mahendrarajah:

Wen-Cong Huang:

- Technician:

Scott Maxson:

- Master students:

Gerben de Zwaan:

Josje Romeijn:

- Previous members

- Kim van Maldegem (master student, 2021)

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


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


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.

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

Thursday 20 October 2022
Anja Spang appointed Professor by special appointment of Symbioses in Evolution
Dr. Anja Spang has been named Professor by special appointment of Symbioses in Evolution at the Faculty of Science at the University of Amsterdam (UvA). The chair was established on behalf of NIOZ Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research.
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…
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

  • 2022
    Krause, S.; Gfrerer, S.; von Kügelgen, A.; Reuse, C.; Dombrowski, N.; Villanueva, L.; Bunk, B.; Spröer, C.; Neu, T.R.; Kuhlicke, U.; Schmidt-Hohagen, K.; Hiller, K.; Bharat, T.A.M.; Rachel, R.; Spang, A.; Gescher, J. (2022). The importance of biofilm formation for cultivation of a Micrarchaeon and its interactions with its Thermoplasmatales host. Nature Comm. 13: 1735.
    Moody, E.R.R.; Mahendrarajah, T.A.; Dombrowski, N.; Clark, J.W.; Petitjean, C.; Offre, P.; Szöllosi, G.J.; Spang, A.; Williams, T.A. (2022). An estimate of the deepest branches of the tree of life from ancient vertically evolving genes. eLIFE 11: e66695.
    Patterson, M.O.; Levy, R.H.; Kulhanek, D.K.; van de Flierdt, T.; Horgan, H.; Dunbar, G.B.; Naish, T.R.; Ash, J.; Pyne, A.; Mandeno, D.; Winberry, P.; Harwood, D.M.; Florindo, F.; Jimenez-Espejo, F.J.; Läufer, A.; Yoo, K.-C.; Seki, O.; Stocchi, P.; Klages, J.P.; Lee, J.I.; Colleoni, F.; Suganuma, Y.; Gasson, E.; Ohneiser, C.; Flores, J.-A.; Try, D.; Kirkman, R.; Koch, D.; the SWAIS 2C Science Team (2022). Sensitivity of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet to +2 °C (SWAIS 2C). Sci. Drill. 30: 101-112.
    Spang, A.; Mahendrarajah, T.A.; Offre, P.; Stairs, C.W. (2022). Evolving perspective on the origin and diversification of cellular life and the virosphere. Genome Biology and Evolution 14(6): evac034.
  • 2021
    Coleman, G.A.; Davín, A.A.; Mahendrarajah, T.A.; Szánthó, L.L.; Spang, A.; Hugenholtz, P.; Szöllosi, G.J.; Williams, T.A. (2021). A rooted phylogeny resolves early bacterial evolution. Science (Wash.) 372(6542): eabe0511.
    Dombrowski, N.; Mahendrarajah, T.A.; Gross, S.T.; Eme, L.; Spang, A. (2021). Archaea, in: Green, L.H. et al. Practical Handbook of Microbiology, 4th edition. pp. 229-248.
  • 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.
    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