Nicole King first became fascinated with the natural world as a young girl, when she spent weekends collecting sharks’ tooth fossils from her neighborhood creek. While her research in college and grad school focused on genetics and biochemistry, she never lost her interest in evolution. In her current research, she and members of her laboratory use approaches from genomics, biochemistry, and cell biology to investigate the origin of animals. She is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, an Investigator in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and a MacArthur Fellow.
The evolution of animals from their protozoan ancestors marks one of the most pivotal, and poorly understood, events in life’s history. As the closest living relatives of animals, choanoflagellates offer unique windows into animal origins and core features of animal cell biology. I will first provide a historical retrospective on choanoflagellate research, from their discovery in the 1800s to their recent establishment as experimentally tractable model organisms. From there, I will describe how the study of choanoflagellates has enriched our understanding of the first animals. Finally, I will describe our recent discovery of a multicellular choanoflagellate that undergoes rapid inversion in response to light/dark transitions. The cellular details of this process are conserved in animals, suggesting that cellular mechanisms underlying gastrulation and neurulation predate the origin of animals.