Thursday, January 12, 2012

Tribute to Lynn Margulis

The amazing Lynne Margulis died on November 22, 2011. She probably thought “outside the box” more than any other scientist I knew.

I once had the opportunity to speak with her at the same meeting, a get together of New York State community college professors. Lynn was one of the leading scientists in the United States. I was just barely beginning my career. She gave all the enthusiasm to that small unassuming group that you would expect from a keynote speaker at a major conference.

Lynn Margulis was nothing if not egalitarian. And her social M.O. makes sense when you realize her scientific specialty was symbiosis, organisms helping one another to maximize their potential in a harsh environment.

I teach about symbiosis every semester, for example the fungal-plantroot symbiosis called mycorrhizae (fungus roots),


the legume-bacterial connection that stars nitrogen-fixing Rhizobium bacteria,


and of course my specialty, the lichen symbiosis.




But Lynn taught us more than just to think about partnerships. She championed the idea of endosymbiosis…the fact that all plant life depends on bacteria that live inside photosynthetic cells—the chloroplasts.


It took a long time for the scientific community to catch up with her, just like it’s taken us ages to catch the coattails of Darwin. But molecular research vindicated her hypothesis that chloroplasts are photosynthetic bacteria with their own bacterial genome hanging out inside of leaf cells.

Lynn’s depiction of the process of symbiosis is something I’ll never forget. Two one-celled organisms are riding a rocketship into outer space. As the rocketship goes faster and the conditions get worse, the two cells hug one another harder and harder, until at last one of them in inside the other. A better model for endosymbiosis was never imagined.

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