My research relates broadly to the field of the evolution and sociobiology of biological complexity. Increases in complexity in the living world include processes and events like the origin of life, the evolution of programmed cell death (PCD), functional interactions and dependencies in microbial communities, multicellularity, and so on. In the last 5 years, my work has become much more specific to PCD and the levels of selection problem, the surprising role of cell death in evolutionary transitions, and PCD as a stress response in green algal and plant cells. The unexpected and remarkable role of cell death in the history of life has been largely unappreciated. The publications page details my research outputs, including those related to Medicine and Pathology and the applied spinoffs of my work in chlorophyte and plant cell PCD. Many of my scientific interests, especially those related to PCD evolution are covered in my book “The Evolutionary origins of life and death”, which can be found here https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/E/bo68653918.html
My PCD work has looked at the problem of cell death from various angles. We have investigated the nature and meaning of PCD, examined its role in microbial communities and evolutionary transitions, and its role as a stress response in chlorophytes and plant cells. The fitness effects on neighbors, relatives, and non-relatives in the community are investigated with a multi-level selection approach. We discovered that “how an organism dies affects the fitness of its neighbors”. In forthcoming papers, we look at the controversial topic of how exactly PCD is detected and measured and report on prokaryote cell aggregation and death in some of the oldest (3 billion years ago) fossil evidence from the Barberton formations in southern Africa. We are investigating, at the genetic and genomic levels, PCD evolution in prokaryotes, unicellular eukaryotes and plants.
Research in my laboratory has included some of the applications of PCD like lipid production and microalgal aggregation in biotechnology. My medical-related applications are covered in Medicine and Pathology.
We are a community-conscious research group. Our public engagement activities have included establishing a national phycology culture collection, which has now been taken over and administered by Umgeni Water. Bioinformatic algorithms and databases have been developed for use by others in my field (see public engagement).
I have been lucky enough to work with outstanding collaborators, postgraduate students, and postdoctoral fellows. I have developed and taught various undergraduate and postgraduate courses (pedagogy).