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- Thijs Ettema
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I have always been fascinated by History. Some people, when they are introduced to something new, want to know how it works or how they can use it. I am terrible at that kind of practicality. I don’t understand and, many times, I don’t even care. Confronted to something new, my first reaction will be to wonder “why is this like this and not otherwise?”; ”where does it come from?”; or ”was this always like that?”. If you ask these questions about the Arts, the Law or the society, you are a Historian. If you ask these questions about living organisms, then you are an Evolutionary Biologist. And that’s how I became interested in this field even before I discovered that it could actually be a job.
Originally coming from Spain, I moved to France for my undergraduate studies (Aix-Marseille University). Although the system does not really work like that in France, let’s say that I started majoring in Biochemistry but ended up moving towards Microbiology when I realized the incredible diversity of invisible organisms that exist out there. Still as an undergraduate, I was introduced to the marvelous world of comparative genomics under the supervision of Céline Brochier-Armanet. There I realized that I could combine all my passions in one single analysis: I could study the evolution of biochemical stuff in microbes. Simply brilliant!
I moved to Paris to pursue a MSc degree on Genomics and the Molecular Biology of microorganisms at the University Paris-Sud. During my PhD in the same university (under the supervision of David Moreira), I studied the evolution of the metabolic pathways that synthesize the main lipid components in the membranes of the three domains of life (Archaea, Bacteria and Eukaryotes). The cell membranes are absolutely essential structures in all cells and harbor many major functions, but they attract little attention from evolutionary biologists compared to their importance. Therefore, during my subsequent postdoctoral positions at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (Durham, NC, USA) and in Thomas Richards’ laboratory at the University of Exeter (UK) I have progressively specialized myself in the evolution of membrane biosynthesis and the many other functions located in membranes.
Current and future projects
The discovery of Lokiarchaeum and later the Asgard archaea in the Ettema-Lab has made increasingly plausible the hypothesis according to which the stem of eukaryotes evolved from an archaeon related to this lineage. These were major contributions to the field of early evolution and so it seemed natural that I would join Ettema-Lab to pursue the efforts on understanding the origin of eukaryotes and their relationship to archaea.
In the future, I would like to bring together my work on eukaryogenesis to my previous background on membrane evolution: as a matter of fact, one of the major differences between Archaea and the two other domains of life are their membranes. The main component of cell membranes in all the three domains of life are the phospholipids, but the phospholipids in archaea are completely different from those commonly found in bacteria and eukaryotes. This raises the question: if the eukaryotic stem originated in archaea, where did the eukaryotic membrane come from and how does it relate to its prokaryotic ancestors? That challenging but fascinating question will be, I hope, the direction of my future research.