Jennah Dharamshi

PhD Student

Every time I stop to think about the amazing complexity yet stunning simplicity of life I am struck speechless. The fact that different permutations of four bases not only encode all life as we know it, but also hold the secrets to life’s evolutionary history is truly incredible. How lucky am I to get to study that.

For my PhD here in the Ettema lab I am using next-generation sequencing methods to explore the world of microbial dark matter.

The vast majority of microbial life cannot be cultured (grown) in the lab and until the advent of genetic sequencing remained invisible to us. Environmental surveys using conserved genes present in the genomes of all known life revealed the existence of this “dark matter”. Hiding in plain view, from kitchen sinks to hot springs, undiscovered life abounds.

Using metagenomics (sequencing all organisms living in an environmental sample) my project focuses on extracting genomes belonging to novel microbes that can help us to learn more about the evolution of the major groups of life. The uncultured diversity on our planet holds the answers to many deep evolutionary mysteries and major transitions in the history of life. In addition, exploring such novel lineages will help us learn more about the impact of “microbial dark matter” on important biogeochemical processes in the environment.


As a recent graduate of the Erasmus Mundus Master Programme in Evolutionary Biology (MEME,, it is hardly surprising that I was attracted to everything that has to do with the Ettema Lab.

During my masters I was lucky enough to meet Thijs and complete a six-month long research project in the lab alongside my co-supervisor Anja Spang. During this time I explored the prevalence and evolution of a novel group from a deep-sea hydrothermal vent field metagenome. Using a combination of amplicon studies, phylogenetics and comparative genomics we looked to gain more insight into both its ecology and place in the evolutionary history of its phylum. With the acquisition of further metagenomes the answers to these questions will become clearer, and during my PhD studies I will continue to delve into this project.

As part of the MEME program students complete several research projects at different universities. Consequently during my masters I spent several months in the lab of Nicolas Mouquet (and Vincent Calcagno) at Université Montpellier 2 using experimental evolution to study a bacterial model for a competition-colonization tradeoff.  Further, six months of my masters were spent completing a research project at the University of Groningen. Here I investigated “cannibalism” toxins in bacteria from an evolutionary perspective under the supervision of Jordi van Gestel, Marielle van den Esker, Franjo Weissing and Oscar Kuipers.

Prior to my adventures with MEME I completed my Bachelor’s degree at The University of Western Ontario with an honors specialization in microbiology and immunology. During my honors thesis year in the lab of Susan Koval (with Ryan Chanyi) studying Bdellovibrio-and-like organisms, a spark lit my interest in molecular evolution. Intrigued by the complex life-cycle of these organisms I couldn’t stop thinking about how such a system had first evolved.

Evolutionary biology had me hooked…

Earlier research in the lab of Theodore Henry while on exchange at Plymouth University and research on a DAAD RISE scholarship with Jörg Schaller at Technische Universität Dreseden had already certainly fanned the flame and given me a great foundation and inspiration for continuing on in research.

Research Interests

Most of my main interests stem from the intersection of evolutionary biology and microbiology. Understanding the origins of life, its major groups and the evolution of complexity are to me particularly intriguing. From eukaryogenesis, to the evolution of multicellularity to microbial symbioses I want to learn more about the history and current processes that drive microbial life around us.

I also have a very strong interest in extremophiles and adaptation in extreme environments. Several summers working as a research field assistant in the high Arctic for the Environmental Sciences Group (ESG, has in particular drawn me towards psychrophiles and in using microbes for both bioremediation and energy generation.The Ocean is another place that has always fascinated me and I am driven to learn more about the microbial biosphere here, from deep sea sediment communities to coral reef symbioses.

In other areas I also like the prospect of applying the principles of evolutionary biology to different fields, for example to the evolution of different languages and as a tool in biogeography.