Disa Bäckström

PhD Student


I have been fascinated by deep evolution ever since I first studied biology in high school, when we read an excerpt from “The Blind Watchmaker” by Richard Dawkins. It covered a part of a chapter called “Origins and miracles”, talking about how cumulative selection in self-replicating clay crystals could have been a primitive precursor to the evolution of the RNA- and DNA-based self-replicating systems of living organisms. I was amazed at how elegantly the evolutionary concepts describe the enigmatic origin of life on Earth. The concepts were intriguing and beautiful, and it was with that kind of biology in mind that I applied to the bachelor program in Biology at Uppsala University.

Undergraduate and graduate studies

During my biology bachelor years I was fascinated and interested in almost all aspects of biology, but mostly in the invisible processes which underlie all life, i.e. genetics. Naturally I continued with the master program in Cell an Molecular biology, also at Uppsala University. When it was time to look for a master thesis project, my interest in microbial diversity and deep evolutionary questions led me to the lab of Thijs Ettema.

The aim with my project was to gain insight into a new microbial lineage from hydrothermal vent sediments, using phylogenetics and other culture indepentent methods. Before starting my master thesis I conducted a research training internship at SciLifeLab’s Single-Cell Genomics platform, which is closely connected with Ettema lab.

Scientific interests and current research

I am very happy to do my PhD here  in Ettema lab, since the group consists of people who are at least as obsessed with evolutionary questions as I am. What I value most with biology are the moments of vertigo when you appreciate the staggering complexity of living systems. Through the advent of culture independent methods and next generation sequencing, it has become apparent how huge microbial diversity is, and possible to explore this “microbial dark matter”. My goal is to contribute to increasing our knowledge of microbial diversity and deep evolution by characterizing exotic microbes from extreme environments, such as  hot springs and hydrothermal vents. Environments like these are seen as representative of the conditions on early Earth, when life was very young. By studying the microorganisms currently living there we can gain insights into the early evolutionary events that shaped the fundamental characteristics of lifeforms on our planet. I’m also interested in what is sometimes referred to as “the fourth domain of life” – Viruses, and what role they played in early evolution. By using cutting edge method’s, such as Metagenomics and Single Cell Genomics, I’m sure that we’ll have many exciting discoveries to look forward to!

Other topics that spark my interest include: the origin of viruses, transposons and introns, the human microbiome and its effect on our health, the role of telomeres in aging, microbial diversity and evolution in general, and astrobiology.