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Dr Katherine E Helliwell

Contract Research Staff
Dr Katherine E Helliwell
Department of Plant Sciences
University of Cambridge
Downing Street

Cambridge CB2 3EA
Office Phone: 01223 330219


Education and Awards

  • BSc (First Class Hons) Biological Sciences, University of Bristol (2004-2007)
  • PhD Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge (2007-2011) 
    • Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council Collaborative Awards in Science and Engineering (BBSRC CASE) Studentship


Research Interests

My research interests lie in vitamin metabolism, the evolution of vitamin auxotrophy and symbiosis. A complex pattern of vitamin auxotrophy exists across the eukaryotic tree of life, and evidence suggests that the evolution of vitamin-related pathways through specific gene loss (and gain) events has driven the differentiation of auxotrophy that exists between species (Helliwell et al. Trends and Genetics. 2013). The importance of this process in terms of shaping communities on the one hand, and facilitating symbioses between organisms on the other, is only just beginning to be recognized.

Microalgae are diverse, photosynthetic microbial eukaryotes in which vitamin auxotrophy is prevalent, with ~5%, 22%, and 50% of surveyed species requiring biotin (B7), thiamine (B1), and cobalamin (B12) respectively (Croft et al. Eukaryotic Cell. 2007). These organisms therefore represent an intriguing model to study the evolutionary origins of vitamin dependence. In this regard, we recently made important progress elucidating the evolutionary processes that shape the vitamin B12 requirements of algae. A survey of algal species with sequenced genomes revealed that just one gene, B12-independent methionine synthase (METE), is capable of bypassing the requirement of algae for B12. Moreover, this work revealed that B12 auxotrophy may have arisen, through the loss of this gene (Helliwell et al. Molecular Biology and Evolution.  2011). The discovery of METE pseudogenes in two species, Volvox carteri and Gonium pectorale, of the Volvocale lineage of algae provides a snap-shot of this evolutionary process in action.

My current research uses a broad range of experimental techniques, spanning the fields of biochemistry, genetics, molecular biology, evolution, metabolism and bioinformatics to further understand unknown aspects of vitamin metabolism in algae.


  • Lecture for Part II module: Microbes and Genome Evolution
  • Supervision of Part II undergraduate research projects
  • Demonstrations for Part IA Physiology, Part IA Cell Biology, and Part IB Plant Sciences

Other Professional Activities

  • Athena SWAN junior postdoctoral research associate (PDRA) representative
  • PDRA representative of the safety committee 

Key Publications

Scaife, M. A., Nguyen, G., Rico, J., Lambert, D., Helliwell K. E., Smith A.G. (2015) Establishing Chlamydomonas as an industrial biotechnology host. The Plant Journal. In Press.

Helliwell K. E., Collins S. Kazamia E. Purton S. Wheeler G. L. and Smith A.G. (2014). Fundamental shift in vitamin B12 eco-physiology of a model alga demonstrated by experimental evolution. The ISME Journaldoi:10.1038/ismej.2014.230

Helliwell K. E., Scaife M.A., Sasso S, Ulian Araujo A., Purton S. and Smith A. G. (2014). Unraveling vitamin B12-responsive gene regulation in algae. Plant Physiology. 

Helliwell K. E., Wheeler G.W. and Smith A. G (2013). Widespread decay of vitamin-related pathways: coincidence or consequence? Trends in Genetics. 29(8):469-78*

(*see piece in NY Times exploring this work here: )

Helliwell K. E., Wheeler G.W., Leptos K., Goldstein R. and Smith A. G. (2011). Insights into the Evolution of Vitamin B12 Auxotrophy from Sequenced Algal Genomes. Molecular Biology and Evolution. 28(10): 2921-33  

Kazamia E., Helliwell K. E., Smith A. G. (2010). Vitamin B12- Keeping a Clear Head. The Biochemist. 32 (6): 20 -24 


Other Publications

Invited talks and Conference Participation

  • Sept 2014: Prospects and challenges for the development of algal biotechnology (Bielefeld University, Germany) Platform presentation 
  • March 2014: Seminar (Carnegie Institution for Science, Department of Plant Biology, Stanford University, CA)
  • Feb 2014: Ocean Sciences Meeting (Honolulu, USA) Poster presentation
  • July 2013: ICOP XIV, International Congress of Protistology (Vancouver, Canada) Platform presentation
  • July 2012: Protist2012 (Oslo, Norway) Platform presentation
  • June 2010: 14th International Conference on the Cell and Molecular Biology of Chlamydomonas (Wheaton College, Boston, USA) Platform presentation
  • Sept 2009: Society of General Microbiology Meeting (Edinburgh, Herriot-Watt University) Platform presentation
  • April 2008: The Tetrapyrrole Meeting (The Novartis Foundation, London) Platform presentation
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