Although the cell is commonly referred to as “the most basic unit of life”, it is actually so complex that despite over 350 years of research we are still far from fully understanding its structural, functional and evolutionary workings. Even the simplest unicellular organisms routinely carry out complicated tasks such as processing and responding to signals from the environment, maintaining an efficient metabolic network, communicating with other cells, and adapting to new evolutionary challenges.
Studies in cell biology have illuminated many molecular pathways and protein functions that govern cells, but we still do not fully understand how these complex systems are established and function. I, and others, argue that a better dissection of the evolutionary mechanisms that produce cellular functions will significantly advance our understanding of the fundamental principles governing the complexities of cell biological systems by providing the rationale behind variations in cellular functions and networks. Bringing the fields of cell biology and evolution together into an integrated field of “evolutionary cell biology” has historically produced major advances in our understanding of cells. For example, the development of the “endosymbiotic theory” of how mitochondria arose revolutionized our understanding of the origins and structure of eukaryotic cells. Hence, further development of this interdisciplinary field will ultimately allow us to better address diverse areas of cell biology.
Throughout my PhD, I found that combining evolutionary and cell-biological studies brings unique insights on cellular innovation, complexity, limitation, and adaptation. To this end, in my research, I combined molecular genetics methods and large-scale synthetic libraries with long-term lab-evolution protocols. With this approach, I manipulated the translation and splicing machineries, separately, to present them with molecular challenges. I then followed and deciphered the adaptation mechanisms used by these complex systems to restore their proper function. My work demonstrates how an evolutionary perspective on cell biological questions can teach us about the workings of living cells.