Thomas Pfeiffer


New Zealand Institute for Advanced Study
Personal Homepage

Education & Scientific Career

Diploma in Biophysics, Humboldt University Berlin
2000-2003 PhD with Sebastian Bonhoeffer, Ecology & Evolution, ETH Zurich, Switzerland
2003-2005 PostDoc Fellowship at ETH Zurich Computational Laboratory
2005-2010 Research Scientist @ PED, funded by Society in Science
2010-2012 Research Associate, Harvard University School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
2012- Professor for Computational Biology, NZIAS, Massey University

Research interests

Evolution of scientific knowledge. Publications in scientific journals contain a large fraction of scientific knowledge of mankind. The question of how this knowledge is obtained and how it evolves over time has fascinated philosophers - and a number of evolutionary biologists - for a long time. Using information from publication databases I aim to understand how scientific information is transferred from publication to publication and from researcher to researcher; how researchers choose their research topics; and what factors determine their success. Long-term perspective of my research project is to test theories for the evolution of knowledge such as Richard Dawkins concept of memes.

Reciprocal altruism and the use of social information. Reciprocal altruism is a major explanation for the emergence of cooperation among unrelated individuals. Cooperation may be beneficial if it is reciprocated by other individuals in future interactions. In direct reciprocity, individuals reciprocate previous cooperative interactions with the present partner. In indirect reciprocity, cooperation may be reciprocated by individuals other than the present partner. Using computer simulations, I am studying which type of information (observed vs. experienced; individual-specific vs. unspecific) can be used by strategies of reciprocal altruism.

Evolution of complex biochemical networks. Processes in living organisms are the result of interactions of biochemical compounds in highly complex networks. It is a major challenge in biology to understand the design and functioning of these networks. Since biochemical networks emerge as a result of Darwinian evolution it is a promising approach to study the impact of evolutionary processes on network design and functioning. In my research projects I am studying the consequences of tradeoffs between rate and yield of ATP-producing pathways, the emergence of crossfeeding in microbial populations, and the origin of "hub metabolites" in metabolic networks.

Selected publications

  1. Pfeiffer T, S Schuster, S Bonhoeffer (2001). Cooperation and competition in the evolution of ATP-producing pathways. Science 292: 504-507.
  2. Pfeiffer T, S Bonhoeffer (2003). An evolutionary scenario for the transition to undifferentiated multicellularity. P Natl Acad Sci USA 100: 1095-1098.
  3. Pfeiffer T, S Bonhoeffer (2004). Evolution of crossfeeding in microbial populations. Am Nat 163: E126-35.
  4. Pfeiffer T, S Schuster (2005). Game-theoretical approaches to studying the evolution of biochemical systems. Trends Biochem Sci 30: 20-25.
  5. Pfeiffer T, C Rutte, T Killingback, M Taborsky, S Bonhoeffer (2005). Evolution of cooperation by generalized reciprocity. P Roy Soc Lond B Bio 272: 1115-1120.
  6. Pfeiffer T, OS Soyer, S Bonhoeffer (2005). Evolution of connectivity in metabolic networks. PLoS Biol 3: e228