UCL Division of Biosciences

Prof Joel Bryan Dacks

Prof Joel Bryan Dacks

Honorary Professor

Genetics, Evolution & Environment

Div of Biosciences

Joined UCL
1st Jun 2020

Research summary

 A major focus of my research program is understanding the fundamental mechanisms underlying non-endosymbiotic organelle evolution and how these have shaped the cellular configuration of eukaryotes, particularly during eukaryogenesis. This has three immediate facets:  

1) Reconstructing the endomembrane system complexity present in the last common ancestor of all eukaryotes today. Comparative molecular evolutionary studies have deduced that the Last Eukaryotic Common Ancestor (LECA) must have possessed a sophisticated set of proteins and organelles responsible for membrane-trafficking, similar in complexity to many eukaryotes today. My current research program examines the evolution and function of the Contractile Vacuole, an osmoregulatory organelle found in freshwater microbes across the tree of eukaryotes. However, it is poorly understood how these organelles function in many cases, and whether they are homologous between lineages. We are using transcriptomics and molecular evolution to understand this enigmatic organelle and its evolution. 

2) Mechanisms and selective forces shaping organelle evolution. My lab seeks to understand the interplay of selective forces that have shaped endomembrane system complexity from its earliest point and throughout the diversification of eukaryotic lineages. We have proposed a fundamental mechanism for non-endosymbiotic organelle evolution, the ‘Organelle Paralogy Hypothesis’ and also highlighted the role of loss in sculpting the membrane-trafficking system complement. My current research pursues some of the downstream predictions of the OPH, both through evolution of novel organelles in individual lineages and soon through ancient protein resurrection. We are also exploring the role of adaptation to trophic mode as a selective force modulating membrane-trafficking complements (eg. phototrophy, parasitism). 

3) Endomembrane evolution and eukaryogenesis. Eukaryogenesis, the evolutionary process and series of events that gave rise to the eukaryotic lineage is one of the most important and hotly debated topics in evolutionary biology. We are working to understand the origins of the membrane-trafficking system and how these play into various eukaryogenic scenarios. Efforts include phylogenetic investigations into the inter-relationships between organelle-specific subfamilies of membrane-trafficking to resolve the evolutionary relationships between the organelles themselves. They also include participation in a multilab collaboration to investigate Arf Family GTPases found in Asgard Archaea, by a combination of molecular evolutionary, ancient protein resurrection, molecular cell biological and structural biological techniques.   

These lines of research are supported by Grants from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (Discovery Grant and Discovery Accelerator) and from the Agence Nationale de Recherche (PI-Cathy Jackson, IJM).   

Students interested in possible projects are encouraged to contact me directly. The Dacks Lab is a fun work environment pursuing exciting evolutionary questions. We are working remotely, dispersed across multiple countries, and having a pretty good time doing so  :) 


I am currently an Honorary Professor in the Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment, linked with the Centre for Life’s Origins and Evolution. My main academic position is at the University of Alberta, where my research group studies evolutionary cell biology of the membrane-trafficking system and how this pertains to both existing cellular diversity and eukaryotic origins. We emphasize microbial eukaryotes (i.e. protists) as critical sampling points to tackle both molecular evolutionary and cell biological questions. I have served as the President of the International Society for Evolutionary Protistology (2018-2020) and as the Treasurer for the International Society of Protistologists (ISOP) since 2018. In 2016, I was the recipient of ISOP’s Seymour Hutner Award and I have been the Canada Research Chair in Evolution Cell Biology since 2011. 


Before starting my own research group in 2008, I was a Research Fellow in the Pathology Department at Cambridge University with Professor Mark Field where we proposed the ‘Organelle Paralogy Hypothesis’ for non-endosymbiotic origins of eukaryotic organelles.  I received my PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Dalhousie University (Canada) in 2003 under the supervision of Professor W. Ford Doolittle.