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Bioenergetics and the major evolutionary transitions









Kavli Royal Society Centre, Chicheley Hall, Newport Pagnell, Buckinghamshire, MK16 9JJ



Satellite meeting organised by Dr Nick Lane, Professor John Allen, Professor John Raven FRS and Professor William Martin

Event details

Cellular bioenergetics produce shifts in genome architecture and vice versa. Some of the major transitions of evolution depend on this interaction. This meeting will focus on the interactions between genomes and energy flow, from the origin of cells in hydrothermal vents to photosynthesis, and from mitochondrial genes in the eukaryotic cell to the evolution of multicellular organisms.

Biographies of the organisers and speakers are available below. Recorded audio of the presentations will be available on this page after the event.

Click here to download the programme

Enquiries: Contact the events team.

Event organisers

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Schedule of talks


13 talks Show detail Hide detail

Early evolution of photosynthesis and the transition to an aerobic world

Dr Robert E Blankenship, Washington University in St Louis, USA


Dr. Blankenship’s research focuses on the highly interdisciplinary subject of photosynthesis. He studies energy and electron transfer processes in antenna and reaction center complexes from all major groups of photosynthetic organisms, with primary emphasis on photosynthetic bacteria. He also does molecular evolutionary studies aimed at understanding the origin and early evolution of photosynthesis. Recent work is targeted to improving the efficiency of photosynthesis in bio-energy contexts. Dr. Blankenship is the author of over 300 scientific publications in the area of photosynthesis. He is organizer for the 16th International Congress on Photosynthetic Research in St. Louis in August 2013.

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Heat traps and RNA replication

Professor Dieter Braun, Ludwig Maximilians University, Germany


Dieter Braun, PhD (Physics) is constructing disequilibrium settings that implement a Darwinian Process. A thermal gradient drives replication while the thermal molecule trap selects the long, information bearing replicates. The aim is to connect physics with biology by recreating early molecular evolution in the lab. He has an ongoing interest in methods for systems biology, including the imaging of reaction kinetics in living cells. The two PhD students Stefan Duhr and Philipp Baaske founded the startup company NanoTemper (Deutscher Innovationspreis 2012) to analyze biomolecule interactions using thermophoresis. Since August 2010 his lab is supported with an ERC Starting Grant. Dr. Braun has won the Klung-Wilhelmy Weberbank Price 2011, the highest endowed price for young Physicists in Germany.

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Was oxygen a limiting factor in early animal evolution?

Dr Nicholas Butterfield, University of Cambridge, UK


I am a palaeobiologist with interests in both the Proterozoic and Cambrian fossil records, and the revolutionary shifts in ecological and evolutionary dynamics that link these two fundamentally different worlds.  After an early career in cattle, logging and heavy equipment repair in western Canada, I took a joint degree in Geology and Zoology at the University of Alberta (biomechanics of mammalian post-canine dentition), followed by a PhD at Harvard (Proterozoic palaeobiology, plus a side project on the Burgess Shale), and then a College Research Fellowship at Cambridge.  My first academic appointment was at the University of Western Ontario, but returned more or less permanently to Cambridge in 1998.   

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Unraveling the origins of eukaryotes: trees, genomes and organelles

Professor Martin Embley, Newcastle University, UK


Martin Embley has been Professor of Evolutionary Molecular Biology in the Institute for Cell and Molecular Biosciences Biological Sciences, Newcastle University, since 2004.  He received his Ph.D. in Microbiology from Newcastle and spent the early years of his career as a teacher at the Polytechnic of East London before moving to the Natural History Museum in 1991, where he set up a lab to investigate the molecular and cellular evolution of eukaryotes. He currently serves as an Associate Editor for Genome Biology and Evolution and has past service as an AE for Molecular Biology and Evolution. He is an elected Fellow of the American Academy for Microbiology and of the UK Academy for Medical Sciences, and he is a an elected member of the European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO).  His current research focuses on eukaryotic genome evolution and on identifying the essential functions of highly reduced organelles related to mitochondria, that are found in anaerobic and parasitic microbial eukaryotes.

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Origins of the Eukaryotic cell: new data and new methods

Professor James McInerney, National University of Ireland Maynooth, Ireland


James McInerney’s  BSc and PhD were awarded by University College Galway, where he studied from 1987 until 1994. Subsequently he worked as a post-doc at the National Diagnostics Centre in Galway and in the Department of Zoology at The Natural History Museum, London. In 1999 he set up the bioinformatics research group at NUI Maynooth and became the director of the Genetics and Bioinformatics degree course.  In 2002, at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, Dr. McInerney was presented with a medal for his research at MEEGID VI and a year later he was recognized by NUI Maynooth for his research achievements when he was awarded the NUI Maynooth Young Investigator Award.  In 2009, he was a guest-editor, along with Prof James Lake and Prof. Mark Ragan of a special issue of Proceedings of the Royal Society of London (Biology Series), which is the world’s oldest continuously-published journal.  In 2011, he gave the “Ernst Mayr” Keynote lecture at the Mechanisms of Protein Evolution meeting in Denver Colorado.  He was one of the founding directors of the Irish Centre for High End Computing. He is currently working as a Senior Lecturer and is an Associate Editor of Molecular Biology and Evolution and he is a regular commentator on scientific matters on TV, Radio and in the print media.  Work in the lab is focused on gene and genome evolution, with the emphasis at the moment on horizontal gene transfer in prokaryotes and mobile genetic elements and gene family evolution in vertebrates.  Dr. McInerney has supervised 20 PhD students, been awarded Marie Curie fellowships, been funded to the tune of more than 3.5 million Euro in direct research funding and been involved in more than €39 Million in programme grants. In addition, he has published in Science, PNAS, Current Biology, TREE, Trends in Genetics, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London and so on. In total he has published more than 75 articles and been an invited speaker at more than 60 conferences.

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Natural selection shapes mitochondrial genetic variation within cells, populations and species

Professor Dan Mishmar, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel


Dan Mishmar is associate professor in the Department of Life Sciences, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Beer-Sheva, Israel. He has a BA in archaeology and a PhD in genetics from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. During his postdoctoral training under the supervision of Prof. Douglas C. Wallace (University California, Irvine) he focused on investigating human mitochondrial genetics and evolution, a topic that has informed his research since the establishment of his own lab at the Ben-Gurion University in 2004.

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Stress and the evolution of reproductive altruism

Dr Aurora Nedelcu, University of New Brunswick, Canada


Aurora Nedelcu is a Professor in the Department of Biology at the University of New Brunswick (Canada), She also holds an Adjunct position in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona and is an External Faculty (and the Director of Education and Outreach) in the Center for Evolution and Cancer (University of California, San Francisco).

Dr. Nedelcu received her BSc in Biology from “Babes-Bolyai” University in Cluj (Romania), and her PhD in Biology from Dalhousie University (Canada; with Robert W. Lee). She did her postdoctoral training in the Organelle Genome Megasequencing Lab at the Universite de Montreal (with Gertraud Burger) and in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department at the University of Arizona (with C. William Birky Jr. and Richard E. Michod).

Most of her current research is rooted in the framework of transitions in individuality and complexity (at a conceptual level), and of cellular responses to stress (at a more mechanistic level). More specifically, she is interested in the evolution of complexity, multicellularity, development, cell differentiation, cancer, sex, programmed death, and altruism. She is using a combination of approaches, spanning various levels of biological organization and fields to address both “how” and “why” questions.

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The Geological environment: energy sources and evolutionary leaps

Professor Euan G Nisbet, Royal Holloway, University of London, UK


Euan Nisbet leads the atmospheric methane group at Royal Holloway, and focussing on the modern methane budget in both the Arctic and the Atlantic tropics. His geological work on the early Earth has been in Zimbabwe, Canada and Australia, especially in  in the Belingwe greenstone belt, Zimbabwe, studying komatiite volcanism, stromatolites and early microbial evolution.  He holds the Hutchison medal of the Geological Association of Canada and has given the William Smith (2003) and Fermor (2000) lectures of the Geological Society of London. Books include The Young Earth: an Introduction to Archaean Geology (Allen and Unwin), Living Earth (Harper Collins), and, on global change, Leaving Eden (C.U.P.), with later Chinese and German translations).

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Geostable molecules and the Late Archean ‘Whiff of Oxygen’

Professor Roger Summons, MIT, USA


Roger Summons is Professor of Geobiology in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  Prior to taking up that appointment in 2001 he was at the Australian Geological Survey Organisation, formerly known as the Bureau of Mineral Resources, Geology and Geophysics in Canberra. Over a period of 18 years at AGSO and BMR he was a member, then leader, of a research team studying the distinctive nature and habitat of Australian petroleum and the evolution of the biogeochemical carbon cycle. 


At MIT his research group studies the co-evolution of Earth’s early life and environment, lipid biosynthetic pathways, hydrothermal ecosystems, biological mass extinction events and the origins of fossil fuels.  Professor Summons was awarded BSc (1969) and PhD (1972) degrees in Chemistry from the University of NSW.  He also undertook postdoctoral research in the Genetics Department at Stanford University and in the Research Schools of Chemistry and Biology at the Australian National University, Canberra.  He is Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science (1998), Fellow of the American Geophysical Union (2006), Fellow of the Royal Society (2008) and the Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology (2012) and is author or co-author of 290 research papers in organic chemistry, geochemistry and geomicrobiology.

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Levels of autocatalysis, evolvability and the major transitions in evolution

Professor Eörs Szathmáry, Parmenides Center for the Conceptual Foundations of Science, Germany, and Eötvös University, Hungary


Biography not available

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Geochemical environments for prebiotic chemistry and early microbial metabolism

Dr Tom McCollom, University of Collorado, USA


Dr. McCollom is an aqueous geochemist whose primary research interests include sources of geochemical energy that support chemosynthetic  microbial growth and on abiotic synthesis of organic compounds.   Current research is focused on the chemical pathways and isotopic signatures of compounds formed in hydrothermal environments, particularly those formed during serpentinization of ultramafic rocks.  The ultimate goals of this research are to understand how life originated on Earth and how it persists today in subsurface environments that are devoid of sunlight, which will impact the search for places where life might exist elsewhere in our solar system.   Ongoing subjects of study include: formation of hydrogen and hydrocarbons in serpentinizing environments, abiotic synthesis and stability of amino acids in hydrothermal systems, and the role of organosulfur compounds in prebiotic organic synthesis pathways.   Dr. McCollom’s research primarily employs a combination of laboratory experimental simulation of hydrothermal environments and development of numerical models, but has also included field work at several continental and deep-sea hydrothermal systems.  For the last ten years, Dr. McCollom has been a research scientist in the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado.

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On the Origin of Cell Death at Sea: The role of infochemicals in mediating the life and death of algal blooms

Dr Assaf Vardi, Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel


Assaf Vardi earned a BSc in biology from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (1994), from which he also received his MSc in environmental sciences (1999) and PhD in molecular ecology (2004). After conducting postdoctoral research at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris and at Rutgers University, he joined the Weizmann Institute faculty as a senior scientist in 2010. He was also recently appointed an Adjunct Scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (USA).

His research interests focus on elucidating the molecular mechanism that drives microbial interactions in the marine environment. Specifically he studies marine photosynthetic microorganisms (phytoplankton) which are the basis of marine foodwebs and are responsible for nearly 50% of the global annual carbon-based primary production.

He explores the signal transduction pathways related to the origin of programmed cell death (PCD), cell-cell communication, host-virus interactions and chemical-based defense. He aims to examine how these cell signaling pathways and infochemical regulate life cycle strategies and coordinate population-level responses during algal bloom dynamics.

Recent focus of his work is given to underline the co-evolution of host and virus around the PCD pathway and the pivotal role of lipid metabolism in the chemical-based “arms race” that mediate and control these evolutionary drivers in the marine environment

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Did pyrophosphate (PPi) precede ATP as prebiological and early biological energy carrier?

Professor Herrick Baltscheffsky, Stockholm University Arrhenius Laboratories for Natural Sciences, Sweden


Some Degrees and Professorships:

Åbo Akademi, Turku (Åbo), Finland: Fil. Kand. 1953. (Chemistry, Mathematics, Physics). Fil. Lic. 1957.  (Biochemistry, Organic Chemistry, Biophysics)

Stockholm University, Sweden: Fil. Dr + Docent (Assistant Professor) 1960. (Biochemistry)

Helsinki University, Finland: Professor 1968. (Medical Chemistry)

Salk Institute, La Jolla CA, USA: Invited Senior Research Professor 1978 (Fall term)

Stockholm University: Professor 1979. (Biochemistry, spec. Bioenergetics). Still at the Dept. of Biochemistry and Biophysics


Some earlier discoveries

1956 (in Philadelphia, U. of Penn. USA) found (in simplified reaction medium) and characterized the “uncoupling event” in rat liver mitochondria;

1962  (in Stockholm) found that bacterial photophosphorylation can have more than one coupling site;

1966 (in Stockholm and Marburg an der Lahn) found a new enzyme: membrane-bound pyrophosphatase/pyrophosphate synthase;

1990 (in Stockholm) found the first organelle inorganic pyrophosphatase and its gene;

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Bioenergetics and the major evolutionary transitions Kavli Royal Society Centre, Chicheley Hall Newport Pagnell Buckinghamshire MK16 9JJ