MacArthur Fellows Program

Nicole King

Evolutionary Biologist | Class of 2005

Reconstructing the emergence of multicellular organisms from unicellular life and shedding new light on the development of genes and the process of evolution.

Evolutionary Biologist
University of California, Berkeley
Berkeley, California
35 at time of award
Published September 1, 2005

Nicole King is a biologist who is reconstructing a critical event in the evolution of life – the emergence of multicellular organisms that form the base of the animal (metazoan) kingdom. Although the unicellular progenitors of animals are long gone, King has focused on organisms known as choanoflagellates, a putative outgroup in the early history of metazoan development. Choanoflagellates are unicellular organisms that share some morphological features with animal cells; some species also form colonies. Using molecular genetic techniques, King isolated from choanoflagellates two types of genes: adhesion molecules and receptor tyrosine kinases. These genes are critical for maintaining the physical integrity of tissues and for intercellular communication, respectively; they were previously believed to exist only in animals. Furthermore, she demonstrated that pharmacological inhibition of receptor tyrosine kinase activity reduces the rate of cell division in choanoflagellates, indicating a functional homology of these genes with their orthologs in animals. With these results, King has shown that the genes necessary for multicellular organization predate the emergence of the metazoan kingdom. She argues that demonstrating the existence of genes does not, however, imply that they are working in a coordinated fashion. In her future research, King plans to use whole organism sequence data to compare the functional genomic organization of choanoflagellates with early metazoans such as the sponge family. 

Nicole King received a B.S. (1992) from Indiana University, Bloomington, and an A.M. (1996) and a Ph.D. (1999) from Harvard University. King held a postdoctoral fellowship (2000-2003) at the University of Wisconsin. Since 2003, she has been an assistant professor of genetics and development in the Departments of Molecular and Cell Biology and Integrative Biology at the University of California, Berkeley. She is also a faculty affiliate of the UC Berkeley Center for Integrative Genomics. Her research has appeared in such academic journals as Nature, Science, and Developmental Cell.

Recent News

Nicole King is an Investigator in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and a Professor of Genetics, Genomics and Development at the University of California, Berkeley, where she continues to study the origin and early evolution of animals. In addition, she has become increasingly interested in understanding how bacteria influence the biology and evolution of the eukaryotes with which they associate.

Updated August 2015

Select News About Nicole King
October 3, 2014
“Bacterial influences on animal origins.”
Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Biology
Nicole King , 2005 MacArthur Fellow
August 1, 2014
"How Life Made the Leap From Single Cells to Multicellular Animals"
Wired Magazine
Nicole King , 2005 MacArthur Fellow

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