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- Thijs Ettema
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Since high school I have been interested in biology. I did a bachelor in Biology at Utrecht University (the Netherlands) during which I mainly chose courses in molecular/cellular, developmental, behavioural and computational biology. Especially the fascinating processes resulting in the development of a fully-functioning multicellular organism from one single cell made me choose the master programme Cancer, stem cells and developmental biology, also in Utrecht.
This research master consists primarily of two research projects. During my major research project (9 months) I studied cardiac development and genetics in zebrafish. I learned some cool techniques in that internship, but I was also wondering how it would be like to not only stand in the lab but also perform bioinformatic analyses. At the same time I also realized that I missed the evolutionary aspect in what I learned during courses and seminars. Only a small selection of model organisms are used, neglecting the wide diversity Nature has provided us with, and solely looking at the similarities with the human situation, instead of how these processes have evolved and what this can tell us. So, I really wanted to combine bioinformatics and evolutionary biology in my minor research project (6 months) to broaden my horizon and do something that is not directly related to what I did previously.
I have been fascinated by the origin of eukaryotes since I read the popular-scientific book Power, sex, suicide: Mitochondria and the meaning of life by Nick Lane a couple of years ago. Whereas for my first project I was performing research on how an already ‘complex’ cell develops into an even more ‘complex’ multicellular organism, for this project I have dived in the mystery of how relatively simple prokaryotic cells have evolved into complex eukaryotic cells. Mitochondria, the powerhouses of eukaryotic cells, played a pivotal role in this process of eukaryogenesis. These organelles were once free-living alphaproteobacteria but it is still controversial to which extant group of alphaproteobacteria these are most closely related.
Under the supervision of Joran Martijn I have successfully reconstructed the genomes of multiple novel alphaproteobacterial lineages using cultivation-independent genomics methods. By inferring their position in the alphaproteobacterial tree of life, these lineages were found to have several really interesting phylogenetic positions. Further research is now being conducted in the lab to look more in depth into these genomes. I can’t wait to see what these novel lineages will teach us about the evolution of the Alphaproteobacteria and mitochondria!
I had a great time in the Ettema lab and really enjoyed my project. It completely convinced me to continue in science, and especially bioinformatics! After finishing my master, I started as a PhD student in the group of Berend Snel in Utrecht in May 2017, working on eukaryogenesis from a different perspective.