• E-mailpawel.burkhardt@uib.no
  • Phone+47 55 58 43 57+47 906 48 539
  • Visitor Address
    Thormøhlens gate 55
    5006 Bergen
  • Postal Address
    Postboks 7800
    5020 Bergen

Neurons, synapses, and the proteins required for their function are critical to the biology and behaviour of animals, but little is known about how they first evolved. In neurons, the transmission of chemical signals (called neuropeptides or neurotransmitters) from the presynapse to the postsynapse requires distinct sets of pre- and postsynaptic protein networks. Understanding when the proteins required for synaptic activity first evolved and how they functioned in the first animals promises to illuminate evolutionary processes underlying the origin of neurons. We are particularly interested in:

  • The origin and functional evolution of synaptic proteins
  • Co-option of these proteins into ancient synaptic scaffolds
  • Evolution of the first neuron-like cell type in animals

We use a comparative approach and work with choanoflagellates, the closest unicellular relatives of animals, sponges, early branching animals with no synapses and neurons, and ctenophores, early branching animals with synapses and neurons, as model organisms. We aim to understand when the proteins required for synaptic activity first evolved, how they functioned at a molecular level and which combinations of synaptic proteins resulted in the origin of the synapse. Our approach is to use a variety of techniques, ranging from comparative genomics, immunofluorescence and electron microscopy, current state-of-the-art biochemical methods to X-ray crystallography to study synaptic protein homologs in choanoflagellates, sponges and ctenophores. Through our work we will be able to reconstruct the evolutionary history of these proteins and understand the evolution of the first synapses and neurons.

Academic article
  • Show author(s) (2024). Evolution of the ribbon-like organization of the Golgi apparatus in animal cells. Cell reports.
  • Show author(s) (2023). Syncytial nerve net in a ctenophore adds insights on the evolution of nervous systems. Science. 293-297.
  • Show author(s) (2022). The premetazoan ancestry of the synaptic toolkit and appearance of first neurons. Essays in Biochemistry. 781-795.
  • Show author(s) (2022). Histone demethylase Lsd1 is required for the differentiation of neural cells in Nematostella vectensis. Nature Communications.
  • Show author(s) (2021). Profiling cellular diversity in sponges informs animal cell type and nervous system evolution. Science. 717-723.
  • Show author(s) (2021). Neuropeptide repertoire and 3D anatomy of the ctenophore nervous system. Current Biology. 5274-5285.e6.
  • Show author(s) (2021). Choanoflagellates and the ancestry of neurosecretory vesicles. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Biological Sciences. 1-12.
  • Show author(s) (2019). The architecture of cell differentiation in choanoflagellates and sponge choanocytes. PLoS Biology. 1-22.
  • Show author(s) (2019). Spatial cell disparity in the colonial choanoflagellate salpingoeca rosetta. Frontiers in Cell and Developmental Biology. 1-19.
Letter to the editor
  • Show author(s) (2023). Are we there yet to eliminate the terms larva, metamorphosis, and dissogeny from the ctenophore literature? Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
Academic literature review
  • Show author(s) (2021). Evolution of synapses and neurotransmitter systems: The divide-and-conquer model for early neural cell-type evolution. Current Opinion in Neurobiology. 127-138.
  • Show author(s) (2019). Exciting times to study the identity and evolution of cell types. Development. 1-6.

More information in national current research information system (CRIStin)

Pawel Burkhardt is a research group leader at the Michael Sars Centre in Bergen, Norway. His research has the primary focus on using marine organisms to understand the molecular and cellular mechanisms that underlie the origin of synapses and neurons. He studied Biology at the University of Göttingen, Germany and Manchester, UK and joined the lab of Dirk Fasshauer at the Max-Planck-Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, Germany for his Master's thesis and PhD, where he worked on rat and choanoflagellate (neuro-) secretory proteins. For his postdoc he studied choanoflagellate postsynaptic protein homologs, in the lab of Nicole King at the University of California, Berkeley, USA. Prior to starting his research group "Evolutionary Origin of Synapses and Neurons" at the Sars Centre in 2018 he worked as a Research Fellow at the Marine Biological Association, UK.

He was awarded the Anne Warner endowed Fellowship in 2014, the Royal Society University Research Fellowship in 2017, an ERC consolidator grant in 2022 and an HFSP research grant in 2023.