My personal fascination with microbes was sparked by my late Professor Lynn Margulis (3/5/1938 – 11/22/2011). I have idolized her since learning of her work on endosymbiotic cell theory in my high school AP Biology class.
Dr. Margulis’s work is largely responsible for identifying archaea as a distinct kingdom of life. She pioneered endosymbiosis research and took James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis and, through her research, turned it into a theory.
In the Fall of 2009, during the first semester of my senior year at Umass Amherst, I was able to be take her course “Environmental Evolution,” an interdisciplinary graduate course in the Geosciences and Organismic and Evolutionary Biology departments. The experience of meeting her, listening to her discussions, and hearing her perspective is something I cherish.
Dr. Margulis disdained the ideas espoused by traditional Darwinian biologists; in one class she joked that outspoken biologist Richard Dawkins (another one of my favorite people) is “just a zoologist” because of his work’s neglect of the microbial population.
This excerpt from Scientific American blogger John Hogan’s tribute to Dr. Margulis beautifully illustrates her unapologetic personality and bold thinking:
“I met Margulis in May 1994 in the first-class lounge of New York’s Pennsylvania Station, where she was waiting for a train. She resembled an aging tomboy: she had short hair and ruddy skin, and she wore a striped, short-sleeve shirt and khaki pants. She dutifully played the radical, at first. She ridiculed the suggestion of Ernst Mayr, Richard Dawkins and other ultra-Darwinians that evolutionary biology might be nearing completion, in terms of not requiring any major additions or revisions. “They’re finished,” Margulis declared, “but that’s just a small blip in the 20th century history of biology rather than a full-fledged and valid science.”
To be clear, Dr. Margulis did not dispute basic Darwinian evolution, to the contrary, she worked to explain the mechanics of it. Her work focused on the mechanisms of evolution; because of her contributions we now understand how beautifully connected life on this planet actually is to, well, everything else.
As time progresses Dr. Margulis’s ardent proclamations that microbes are essential to the bigger picture of life are increasingly relevant to scientific advancement. Microbiome research is the hot topic in biology, spawning massive metagenomic studies like NIH’s Human Microbiome Project. Developing alongside this sort of current research is a new conception of evolution, the hologenome hypothesis.
Science needs innovators. Science needs rebels. Science needs people to keep pushing the boundaries of human knowledge. Otherwise, we might as well pack it in, throw up our hands, and bemoan the fact that we have reached the limits of our intellectual potential. Not only is that sort of thinking lazy, it is dangerously irresponsible. For human knowledge to progress the world needs more Lynn Margulises.