I develop theoretical models to study the evolution of life, behavior and cognition.

My research interests range from the study of major evolutionary transitions, such as the origins of life and the eukaryotic cell, to investigating ecological dynamics and adaptations that promote the evolution of cooperation.

Welcome to my personal website, and thank you for interest in my research.

I am a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Amsterdam Cooperation Lab (AML), Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, working alongside Prof. Daniel Balliet (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) and Prof. Fernando Dos Santos (Universiteit van Amsterdam) on the evolution of human cooperation. The main aim of my research is to use agent-based modelling and evolutionary game theory to study the relationship between fitness interdependence and the evolution of cooperative behaviour.

Before joining the AML, I was a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Nick Lane and Andrew Pomiankowski‘s lab, at the Centre for Life’s Origins and Evolution (UCL, University College London). There, I developed mathematical and computational models to investigate major evolutionary transitions, with a focus on the origin of the genetic code, the evolution of eukaryotes, and the origin of meiotic sex.

I initially trained as a physicist at the University of Messina, writing my BSc thesis with Prof. Giuseppe Carini on the Astrophysical Origin of High-Energy Cosmic Rays. I also acquired some lab experience in Biophysics, performing FTIS measurements to study DNA degradation and self-assembly. Shortly after earning my BSc in Physics, a colleague introduced me to complex dynamical systems theory – I was hooked. My interest in modelling complex biological dynamics led me to continue my studies in London, where I earned a MSc in ‘Complex Systems Modelling’ (with Distinction) at King’s College and a MRes in ‘Modelling Biological Complexity’ (also with Distinction) at University College London. At King’s College, I wrote my MSc dissertation with Prof. Alessia Annibale, using complex networks theory to develop a mathematical model to estimate measurement errors in protein interaction networks.

At UCL, I worked on the dynamics of inheritance and selection of deleterious mitochondrial mutations with Nick Lane and Andrew Pomiankowski, who eventually became my PhD supervisors. My MRes dissertation focused on the inheritance and selection of deleterious mitochondrial mutation. This model was the basis for an article on mammalian germline development, published on eLife in 2021. In addition to my work in the Lane & Pomiankowski Lab, I joined Prof. Chris Barnes‘ group for a research project on the impact of antibiotics on the complex ecological dynamics in the gut microbiota.

The main focus of my PhD research was the development of theoretical models to study the evolutionary impact of deleterious mutations. I successfully defended my thesis ‘The impact of deleterious mutations on the transition to meiotic sex and the structure of the germline‘ in January 2022, with Prof. Chris Barnes and Prof. Franjo Weissing as internal and external examiners, respectively. 

My research demonstrated that the transition to larger and more complex genomes exposed the first eukaryotes to the accumulation of deleterious mutations, creating the selective pressures that led to the origins of meiosis. An analysis of this phenomenon, based on a theoretical model, was published in eLife in 2020 (Genome expansion in early eukaryotes drove the transition from lateral gene transfer to meiotic sex).

This preliminary analysis left several questions unanswered – primarily, why did early eukaryotes have to invent a wholly new mechanism of gene exchange in order to prevent the accumulation of deleterious mutations? During my postdoc, I addressed this question using a more nuanced model of recombination, which includes the costs associated with recombination errors caused by genomic repeats. The results of this study help us to understand the selective pressures behind the evolution of meiosis and can be found in a more recent article on the origins of meiotic sex, published on PNAS in 2022: Repeat sequences limit the effectiveness of LGT and favoured the evolution of meiotic sex in early eukaryotes.

Besides my interest in early eukaryotic evolution and germline dynamics, I have carried out research on the origins of the genetic code and the evolution of mitochondrial genomes. I am very fortunate to be working with, and co-supervising, two brilliant PhD students, Raquel Nunes Palmeira and Aidan Pierce, who are developing theoretical models to study the origins of the genetic code and the evolutionary dynamics of endosymbiotic genomes. A paper on the origins of metabolic heredity in protocells based on Raquel’s research has recently been published.

During my PhD, I also initiated a collaboration with a group of zoologists and microbiologists from the Universities of Messina and Catania, investigating the occurrence of antimicrobial resistance in wild bird and bat populations in Sicily.

While at UCL, I acquired extensive teaching experience, working as Teaching Assistant for a number of different modules (please find my CV below for a complete list). I am a passionate lecturer and mentor, trying to engage and inspire my students by taking into account their individual needs and unique learning styles. Besides lecturing, I have also led workshops, tutorials, and a summer school, with groups ranging from 5 to about 100 students. In 2019, I received an Associate Fellowship award from the UK Higher Education Academy for my commitment to professional development as a lecturer.

I am an enthusiastic and engaging public speaker, and have presented my work at numerous conferences and symposia (see CV below for a complete list).

If you would like to get in touch, you can contact me at this address.


Selected Publications

M Colnaghi, PAM Van Lange, FP Santos, D Balliet (under review). Adaptations to infer fitness interdependence promote the evolution of cooperation. PNAS

M ColnaghiN Lane, and A Pomiankowski (2022). Repeat sequences limit the effectiveness of LGT and favoured the evolution of meiotic sex in early eukaryotesPNAS, 119(35) e2205041119.

RN Palmeira, M Colnaghi, SA Harrison, N Lane, and A Pomiankowski (2022). The limits of metabolic heredity in protocells. Proc Royal Soc B, Nov 9:289(1986).

M Colnaghi, A Pomiankowski, and N Lane (2021). The need for high-quality oocyte mitochondria at extreme ploidy dictates mammalian germline development. eLife, 10:e69344.

M ColnaghiN Lane, and A Pomiankowski (2020). Genome expansion in early eukaryotes drove the transition from lateral gene transfer to meiotic sex. eLife, 9:e58873.

For a complete list, please see my Curriculm Vitae.