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Lab members

Laboratory head: Pierre Durand
Email: pierre dot durand at wits dot ac dot za
Phone: +27 (11) 7172165


Current lab members

Nisha Dhar

PhD Student 2012-2016

Project title: The molecular evolution of complexity at the origin of life

Understanding the steps and mechanisms of how and why a random collection of biomolecules (catalytic RNA) formed higher levels of complexity or an ordered assemblage that displayed at least some of the biochemical properties that we associate with life.

Nisha graduated in 2016 and remains as a postdoctoral fellow for 2016-2017. Her postdoctoral work is investigating the role of programmed cell death in algal blooms using the Prorocentrum – Brevibacterium system isolated from a naturally occurring bloom on the west coast of South Africa.

Nisha's Favourite Quote: "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts"- By Albert Einstein

Jonathan Featherston

PhD student: 2011-2016

Project title: Genomic and genetic changes during the transition to multicellularity in the volvocine algae.

My research involves genome sequencing of Tetrabaena socialis in the Volvocine lineage. The aim of the research is to identify the molecular basis for the evolution of complexity in this lineage, starting with the simplest colonial member T socialis.

Andrew Ndhlovu

MSc student 2012-2015 (graduated with distinction); PhD student 2016-

MSc project: An evolutionary rates database EvoDB and alignment algorithm to infer protein domain function

PhD project: The metagenomics of an algal bloom

A metagenomics approach will be used to investigate changes in microbial communities (abundance and composition) during an algal bloom on the west coast of South Africa.

Santosh Sathe

URC Postdoctoral fellow 2013-

Project 1: The proximate causes and the role of kinship in the evolution of multicellularity.

The evolution of multicellularity is one of the major transitions in evolution. Unlike other major transitions (ex., evolution of the eukaryotic cell) the unicellular to multicellular transition has happened independently and on multiple occasions among various taxa. Multicellular individuals (because of increased size and division of labour between different cell types) have obvious fitness advantages over their unicellular ancestors. However, the initial selective forces responsible for unicellular to multicellular transition and the role of genetic relatedness in this transition are largely unknown. A group of green algae (volvocine) which comprise unicellular Chlamydomonas and multicellular Volvox offers a good study system to address these issues. In our recent study we have shown that the predation was probably one of the major selective force for inducing simple multicellular group formation and the process was affected by cell size and motility. Interestingly, the primitive groups were genetically heterogeneous suggesting high genetic relatedness was not necessary for this transition.

Project 2: Evolution of programmed cell death in unicellular Chlamydomonas.

Programmed cell death (PCD) is a genetically controlled cell death mechanism found in both unicellular (ex., Saccharomyces, Chlamydomonas) and multicellular (ex., metazoa and metaphyta) organisms. The presence of active cell death mechanism in unicellular organisms is an evolutionary conundrum: how can a 'death pathway' evolve by natural selection whose outcome leads to the elimination of all the individuals which activate the pathway? Using a unicellular Chlorophyte Chlamydomonas reinhardtii we are studying (a) the ecological factors responsible for the induction of PCD and (b) the fitness benefits of PCD on neighbouring clones.

Tutuzwa Xuma

PhD student: 2015-

Project: The ultrastructure of programmed cell death in Prorocentrum triestinum

Abhishek Upadhyay

M. Phil (The University of Hong Kong)

Abhishek will commence a PhD in 2016.

His website:


Laboratory visitors

Mr Abhishek Upadhyay (2015) University of Hong Kong

Mr Nishant Garg (2015) Boston University Medical School

Professor Cristian Solari (2015) University of Buenos Aires

Mrs Yogita Dolas (2014)

Professor Rick Michod (2014) University of Arizona


Past lab members

Rajdeep Choudhury

URC Postdoctoral fellow 2012-2013

Project: Molecular basis for the adaptive evolution of programmed cell death

My postdoctoral research interest involved the investigation of the evolutionary origin of programmed cell death (PCD) in unicellular organism Chlamydomonas. The aim was to investigate the fitness effects of PCD in one species on other species.


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