Nicole King is an evolutionary biologist recognized for her work on animal origins and host-microbe interactions. She and members of her laboratory have developed choanoflagellates into experimentally tractable organisms whose study has revealed fundamental features of the last common ancestors of animals. She first became fascinated with evolution and the natural world as a young girl who spent weekends collecting sharks’ tooth fossils from a neighborhood creek in Gainesville, Florida. King graduated from Indiana University in 1992 with a degree in Biology and from Harvard University with a Ph.D. in Biochemistry. She was a post-doctoral scholar in Evolution at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and joined the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley in 2003. King was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in 2006 and in 2013 she was appointed as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator. She was elected as an Associé Étranger in the Académie des Sciences (Institut de France) in 2021 and a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 2022.

Research Interests

Nicole King's laboratory aims to reconstruct the cellular and molecular underpinnings of animal origins. To this end, she developed choanoflagellates, the closest living relatives of animals, into experimentally tractable models for genetics, genomics, and cell biological research. Her early work revealed that choanoflagellates express diverse genes that were otherwise only known from animals, including genes essential for animal multicellularity and cell differentiation. In a series of serendipitous discoveries, her laboratory found that choanoflagellates undergo dynamic cell state transitions in response to environmental cues. Perhaps most notably, both the transition to multicellularity and the transition from asexual to sexual reproduction were found to be under the control of molecules secreted by bacteria. More recently, by connecting field work to laboratory-based investigation, members of her research group have identified a choanoflagellate that rapidly changes its shape and behavior in response to light and another that harbors a bacterial community. Taken together, their work has revealed that animal multicellularity and cell differentiation are elaborations on evolutionarily ancient mechanisms that predate animal origins.

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Section 27: Evolutionary Biology