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Dr Tom Williams

Dr Tom Williams

Dr Tom Williams
PhD(Dub), BA(Dub)

Royal Society University Research Fellow

Area of research

Molecular evolution, phylogenetics and bioinformatics

Life Sciences Building,
24 Tyndall Avenue, Bristol BS8 1TQ
(See a map)


Work in my group focuses on understanding the biodiversity and evolutionary origins of life. We tend to share an inordinate fondness for microbes, phylogenetic trees, and the field of molecular evolution.

Current group members include Dr. Celine Petitjean (NERC PDRA), Jan Zaucha (JGI-funded PDRA), and Gareth Coleman (PhD student). Get in touch if you are interested in joining; I also take interested Masters students from Biological Sciences and Earth Sciences.


The deep structure of the tree of life

I'm fascinated by the earliest stages of cell evolution, including the origins of bacteria, archaea, eukaryotes, and the relationships between them. I am applying phylogenetic and comparative genomic approaches to reconstruct the common ancestors of these groups and to draw inferences about the conditions in which they evolved on the early Earth. Working back from modern genomes to understand ancient events challenges current methods to their limits, and so I work with statisticians to develop and apply new approaches that bring new kinds of data to bear on these challenging problems. These methods include non-stationary and non-reversible substitution models, which enable the root of a phylogenetic tree to be inferred as an integral part of the analysis. They also include probabilistic supertree and gene tree-species tree reconciliation approaches, which promise to harness genome-wide evolutionary patterns to resolve the most ancient parts of the tree of life.

The origin of eukaryotes

I maintain a long-term interest in the origin of eukaryotic cells --- the compartmentalized cells containing a mitochondrion and nucleus that form the basis for the complex life we see around us every day, from a diversity of single-celled forms through plants, fungi, and animals, including humans. The balance of evidence now places a symbiosis between an archaeal host cell and a bacterial endosymbiont --- members of the two major prokaryotic domains --- as a foundational event in the origin of eukaryotes. Much of my work in recent years has focused on testing hypotheses for eukaryote origins, and ongoing work at Bristol involves identifying our closest archaeal relatives and working out how the complex cellular features of modern eukaryotes evolved from their prokaryotic progenitors.

Eukaryotic genome diversity and evolution

While to many of us, the most familiar eukaryotes are the three main multicellular lineages --- plants, animals and fungi --- the great majority of eukaryotic genetic diversity is found among single-celled forms, and several of the most biodiverse eukaryotic groups are entirely unicellular. I'm interested in the times when microbial eukaryotes "break the rules", teaching us something new about fundamental aspects of biology in the process. During postdoc work with Martin Embley at Newcastle, I worked on genome evolution in the Microsporidia --- a group of parasitic fungi whose mitochondria have lost the ability to make cellular energy, and whose genomes are smaller than those of many bacteria! In collaboration with Martin and with Bryony Williams at Exeter, I continue to investigate patterns and processes of genome evolution in these fascinating models for the limits of eukaryotic genome reduction.


I obtained a B.A. in Genetics (2007) and a Ph.D. in molecular evolution (2010) from Trinity College Dublin. My Ph.D. work with Mario Fares focused on the evolution of molecular chaperones in Bacteria and Archaea, and on the effect of chaperone-mediated buffering of destabilising mutations on protein evolutionary rates. From 2010-2015, I was a Marie Curie Fellow and then a Research Associate in Martin Embley's group at Newcastle University. In Martin's group, I worked on processes of genome evolution in the Microsporidia, a group of endoparasitic fungi with highly reduced genomes, and I became fascinated with phylogenetic approaches to understanding early cellular evolution and, in particular, the origin of eukaryotic cells.



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Research groups

Recent publications

View complete publications list in the University of Bristol publications system

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