Researcher profile: Thijs Ettema

Microbial diversity studied with modern technology and powerful computers

Thijs Ettema is a Senior lecturer at the
Research Programme Molecular Evolution

The invisible world of microbes and how different life forms are related evolutionarily has always interested and fascinated Thijs Ettema, associate professor at the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology at Uppsala University, and platform manager at SciLifeLab. How complex life forms like humans, animals and plants have emerged is the overarching question that the research group want answers to.

To get closer to the answer Thijs Ettema and his group study archaea, and how they are related to bacteria and eukaryotes. At the molecular level, Archaea are similar to eukaryotic cells, but their cells are significantly simpler. They are often found in extreme environments such as hot springs and icy seas. They are usually not easy to cultivate or sample, but various scientific expeditions provide the research team with samples of archaea taken directly from their habitat. These samples can come from hydrothermal vent systems in Japan, hot springs from Yellowstone National Park in United States and in New Zealand, and from the seabed between Iceland and Svalbard.

- By looking at these microbial ancestors with the latest genomics technologies, we are trying to find missing pieces of a puzzle of how the complex life on our planet has emerged, says Thijs Ettema.

99 percent of all microbial species cannot be grown in the lab, and the knowledge of these microbes has been rather limited until now. But in recent years cultivation-independent methods, such as metagenomics and single-cell genomics, have made it possible to study even these microbial species. New technology has also helped Thijs Ettema and his research team to show how eukaryotes evolved from archaea, and that a particular group of archaea are closer related to the more complex eukaryotes. They also managed to find the pieces of the puzzle that has been lacking to directly connect archaea to these more complex life forms.

- This was a revolutionary discovery. First, we dared not really believe it was true, but once we did,  we knew we could explain how the transition from simple to complex cells must have occurred, says Thijs Ettema, referring to the recent high-profile article published in the scientific journal Nature.

Thijs Ettema thinks that the BMC and the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology provide the best possible environment for his research. He also stresses the importance of having Staffan Svärd as prefect of the department, as he makes sure that both the scientific and the social atmosphere is great. Eight years have passed since he first came to Uppsala from Holland as a PostDoc, and much has happened since then. At that time he was doing his research by himself, today, he has a group of 18 people.

- Crucial for my research and the foundation for everything was probably when I was awarded a "European Research Council grant". I could build a large research group, which has been very important to the recent research achievements, says Thijs Ettema.

He has probably come to stay in Uppsala. Here he has his life and his work - and it thrives hand in hand, and he appreciates being able to live in the country-side. He feels that people are less stressed than in the Netherlands. He also says that his children are more Swedish than Dutch, in a sense, because they have always lived here. Although he does not miss Holland that much, when it comes to football, 'Oranje' is still his team. But today he is where he wants to be - on several levels.

- I’m involved in a type of research that I did not think was possible five years ago. It goes at breakneck speed, the development is enormous and to be involved in this is both fascinating and challenging. It was always obvious that I wanted become a researcher, but where the academic journey takes you is impossible to know in advance. But in hindsight, it is great how everything has turned out. I'm in the right scientific environment with the right group of people around me, in short all the right ingredients to become a world-leading scientist, says Thijs Ettema.