Biology ETDs

Publication Date



My dissertation centers around investigating big-picture questions related to understanding the consequences of metabolism and energetics on the evolution, ecology, and physiology of life. The evolutionary transitions from prokaryotes to unicellular eukaryotes to multicellular organisms were accompanied by major innovations in metabolic design. In my first chapter, I show that the scaling of metabolic rate, population growth rate, and production efficiency with body size have changed across these transitions. Metabolic rate scales with body mass superlinearly in prokaryotes, linearly in protists, and sublinearly in metazoans, so Kleibers 3/4 power scaling law does not apply universally across organisms. This means that major changes in metabolic processes during the early evolution of life overcame existing physical constraints, exploited new opportunities, and imposed new constraints on organism physiology. Surface areas of physiological structures of organisms impose fundamental constraints on metabolic rate. In my second chapter, I demonstrate that organisms have a variety of options for increasing the scaling of the area of their metabolic surfaces with body sizes. I develop models and examples illustrating the role of cell membrane elaborations, mitochondria, vacuoles, vesicles, inclusions, and shape-shifting in the architectural design, evolution, and ecology of unicellular microbes. I demonstrate how these surface-area scaling adaptations have played important roles in the evolution of major biological designs of cells and the physiological ecology of organisms. In my third and final chapter, I integrate and synthesize findings from the previous two chapters with important developments in geochemistry, microbiology, and astrobiology in order to identify the fundamental physical and biological dimensions that characterize a metabolic theory of ecology of microorganisms. These dimensions are thermodynamics, chemical kinetics, physiological harshness, cell size, and levels of biological organization. I show how addressing these dimensions can inform understanding of the physical and biological factors governing the metabolic rate, growth rate, and geographic distribution of cells. I propose a unifying theory to understand how the major ecological and evolutionary transitions that led to increases in levels of organization of life, such as endosymbiosis, multicellularity, eusociality, and multi-domain complexes, influences the metabolism and growth and the metabolic scaling of these complexes.

Project Sponsors

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) under the HHMI-National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering Interfaces Initiative (through the Program in Interdisciplinary Biological and Biomedical Science at the University of New Mexico); University of New Mexico's Biology Grove Research Scholarship and Melinda Bealmer Memorial Scholarship, University of New Mexico Student Research Allocation Committee Grants.




Major evolutionary transitions, Metabolic theory of ecology, Microbial ecology, Thermodynamics, Kinetics, Allometric scaling, Unicellular organisms, Body size, Cell physiological ecology

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Degree Name


Level of Degree


Department Name

UNM Biology Department

First Committee Member (Chair)

Michod, Richard

Second Committee Member

Moses, Melanie

Third Committee Member

Sinsabaugh, Robert