UCL Division of Biosciences

Dr Joana C. Xavier

Dr Joana C. Xavier

Research Fellow

Genetics, Evolution & Environment

Div of Biosciences

Joined UCL
1st May 2021

Research summary

My research explores one of life’s deepest and oldest questions: how on Earth did cells first emerge? I am profoundly interested in the origin of self-referentiality and in scrutinizing the tangled concepts of last universal common ancestor, minimal cells, protocells and chassis cells (Xavier et al. MMBR 2014). My work has involved the comparative simulation of multiple large computational models of metabolic networks of prokaryotes, the simplest life-forms known, to identify essential and ancient metabolites, reactions and pathways (Xavier et al. Met Eng 2017; Xavier et al. PLoS Comp Bio 2018). I have also worked with phylogenomics to reconstruct deep evolutionary events including the last bacterial common ancestor (Xavier et al. Comms Bio 2021). I recently identified and investigated autocatalytic networks running solely on organic cofactors and metals as catalysts (Xavier et al. Proc Roy Soc B 2020), and am currently developing that framework in the study of the emergence of metabolism.


I am a bioengineer, computational biologist and Research Fellow in the Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment at University College London. I graduated as MSc from the first class of Bioengineers in the University of Porto (Portugal) and did research in leading scientific laboratories in Portugal, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (Szeged, Hungary) and the Argonne National Laboratory (Chicago, USA). I earned my PhD in Chemical and Biological Engineering from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (Germany) and the University of Minho (Portugal). After my PhD I worked for a short period as a volunteer English tutor with Tibetan refugees in Dharamsala (India), and then joined the Department of Molecular Evolution in the Heinrich-Heine University of Dusseldorf as a postdoctoral fellow.

Beyond the origins and fundamentals of life, I am interested in all kinds of networks, nature, art, philosophy, literature, traveling, music, sustainable pescetarianism, compassion, meditation and science outreach. I presided over the organization of the first Symposium on Bioengineering in Porto in 2009, today in its twelfth edition. I also organized the first interdisciplinary meeting for early career researchers on the origin of life in Düsseldorf in 2018, which continues to be held biannually. I am a co-founder and member of the Executive Board of the Origin of Life Early-career Network (OoLEN).