Detecting bull, detecting DNA
With a rough voice, tousled grey hair and hands waving animatedly, University of Massachusetts Distinguished Professor in Geosciences Lynn Margulis stands in front of a Biology 280 class, guest lecturing on the importance of microbes and the role symbiogenesis plays in evolution.
“The answer to all my questions is always bacteria,” she says to the class, continuing on to say that bacteria do everything all other life does, “except talking – they don’t do talking.”
The woman standing in front of the class is small in stature, but there’s something about the compelling way she engages the class that commands instant respect. This is a woman who has worked for NASA, written or contributed to countless published works, won the National Medal of Science, and is in every intro to biology textbook written in the recent past.
Her list of accomplishments alone, however, is not what makes her one of the most prominent microbiologists in the world. It’s her straightforward attitude and unrelenting spirit – the same qualities that propelled her down the winding and sometimes controversial road to where she is today.
Born on the South Side of Chicago in 1938, Margulis attended O’Keefe Elementary School.
“When I was in [elementary school], I was bad because I was bored,” said Margulis. “I’ve always had trouble doing what I’m supposed to do. I just laughed at goodie-goodies, and made trouble, and chased boys, and I was bad.”
In the fourth grade, her parents pulled her from O’Keefe and enrolled her in the University of Chicago Laboratory School, “which changed my life completely,” she said. As a little fourth grader, Margulis had to take the train every day from the South Side to Hyde Park to get to school.
The Laboratory School, which offered a special early-admissions program to the University of Chicago after only two years of high school, followed a rigorous curriculum – the teachers were very talented and they challenged Margulis. It was here that she had her first real exposure to the study of science and nature.
“I came from a totally ignorant family as far as science was concerned,” she said. She spent a few years in the Laboratory School before withdrawing and going back to Hyde Park High School. At age 14, however, she took a giant leap in her academia – she started her freshman year at the University of Chicago, “which just changed my life,” said Margulis.
As the second youngest student (there was one boy who was two months younger), the University challenged Margulis, forcing her to explore all fields, from physics to genetics, from social sciences to humanities.
“I would never be where I am without it,” Margulis said of the University of Chicago program. “I just loved it.”
Margulis graduated from the University of Chicago with a Bachelors of Arts. She didn’t get her biology education there; she did, however, learn one important life skill.
“I got my critical ability to detect bullshit. I’m really good at that,” she said.
Soon after graduation in 1957, she married physicist Carl Sagan, with whom she had two children, Dorion and Jeremy. She started her Masters degree in zoology and genetics at the University of Wisconsin at the ripe old age of 19. Once there, they told her she would be teaching zoology one, a subject she had never spent time formally studying. She was just barely ahead of the students she was instructing.
This experience enforced the idea that, according to Margulis, “the words ‘I teach’ doesn’t mean ‘you learn,’ it means ‘I learn.'” It was through teaching these biology classes for years that she gained the biological training critical to her future work.
In 1963, she received her Ph.D in genetics from the University of California Berkeley. She moved, with Sagan and her children, to Boston to work at Boston University. Soon after, in 1964, Margulis and Sagan divorced.
She met her second husband, Thomas Margulis, while in Boston. They married and had two children, Jennifer and Zachary. In 1982, the pressures of Margulis’s intense career grew to be too much, and they divorced.
After 22 years at BU, in 1989 Margulis moved to Amherst to take up her teaching post in the geosciences department at UMass.
While working on her master’s at Wisconsin, Margulis encountered a professor by the name of Hans Rise. According to Margulis, “he was a wonderful, wonderful teacher; he was the kind of teacher that let you do things for yourself.” It was through him Margulis first discovered the endosymbiotic theory, the idea that two microbes have fused together to become one, forming a brand new organism.
The idea, originally proposed by Constantin Mereschkowsky, was considered utterly ridiculous within the scientific community during the time of Margulis’s education. She didn’t even give the idea too much thought at first. Her work, as a geneticist, was focused more on the curious beginnings of cytoplasmic heredity.
A famous phrase in the science world says that “there are two kinds of genetic systems – nuclear [traditional Mendelian genetics] and unclear [cytoplasmic heredity].” True to her nature, Margulis was more attracted to the intellectually challenging problem of the “unclear” genetics.
Her research led her to look more closely at the origins of cells’ organelles, which are specialized structures found inside the cell. Her studies in that region led her to take another look at endosymbiosis, particularly in the mitochondria, the organelle from which a cell gathers its energy, and chloroplasts, in which photosynthesis occurs.
Because chloroplasts are green, it was easy to see that they, in fact, contained DNA. Further studies proved the same true for mitochondria. Through these studies and more, Margulis and her team had convinced themselves that mitochondria and chloroplasts were formed by the oft-ridiculed process of endosymbiosis.
The scientific community, however, was not all that willing to listen. In 1966, Margulis tried to publish her findings in a paper titled “The Origin of Mitosing Cells,” but she was rejected about 15 times.
According to Margulis, the paper kept getting sent back “basically because I couldn’t conform.” Her stubborn faith that her work was correct kept pushing her to new sources, and finally her paper was published. Over 40 years later, it’s a theory that is touted in biology textbooks of every level.
Now, Margulis is pushing the envelope again. While the endosymbiotic theory for mitochondria and chloroplasts is accepted worldwide, she is working on a more controversial addition to the theory at her lab in the Morrill Science Center at UMass.
Margulis is taking on traditional science once more by proposing that undulipodia, the things that make certain cells move, were also formed endosymbiotically.
“I remember having this sort of insight as a genetics student at the University of California … [thinking], ‘My God, if it’s true for mitochondria and it’s true for chloroplasts, it must be ultimately true for the undulipodia,” she said. “We’ve been working on it ever since, and the data is now coming in. I mean it’s coming in definitively, it’s fabulous.”
The circular system of life on Earth
Margulis seems to get involved with theories that have a tinge of controversy to them. Such is the case with another of Margulis’ ongoing projects – the Gaia hypothesis.
First put forth by British scientist James Lovelock and named for the goddess of the Earth, Gaia portrays the Earth as one giant superorganism, where one system regulates another and so on and so on. Life is not adapted to the environment, but it’s making and responding to the environment, and the environment responds to life.
Before she ever heard of Lovelock, the insatiable mind of Margulis had this question bubbling in the back of her mind – it was well acknowledged that oxygen in the atmosphere is a product of life, but Margulis couldn’t figure out why no one wa
s discussing the origins of the multitude of other gases that can be found in the Earth’s atmosphere.
“Everybody says that oxygen in the atmosphere is of biological origin from photosynthesis, but they never … [talk about] nitrogen oxides and so on,” said Margulis. When she brought these questions up to friends, “literally eight people, independent occasions, said to me, ‘You gotta go look up Lovelock,'” she said.
And a new collaboration was formed. Lovelock, an eccentric scientist from the English countryside, proposed the idea that all these reactive gases are produced by biological systems. Margulis’s extensive knowledge regarding which microbes produce which gases helped Lovelock legitimize his hypothesis with hard scientific proof.
The first time Margulis and Lovelock really sat down in 1972 to discuss Gaia in full was to record a conversation to be used as a lecture for a class at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The pair, along with Stewart Wilson of MIT, worked from 9:30 a.m. until 4 p.m. When they were finished, they pressed play to listen to a little of what they had spent all day on.
And “zero came out,” said Margulis. They hadn’t pressed record.
She and Lovelock made plans to meet up a different day, and Margulis said, “If that hadn’t happened, we would never have published two papers because I didn’t get what he was saying” the first time around.
According to Margulis, Gaia and endosymbiosis are related in that Gaia is the ecology and endosymbiosis is the evolutionary process. The Earth and those living on it could fundamentally not exist without either theory.
“Next time, no brains.”
At UMass, Margulis teaches an environmental evolution course, which is open to seniors of any major, focusing mainly on Gaia. She draws from the schooling experiences that have shaped her so much – environmental evolution has no tests and frequently puts the students in the teacher’s seat. When she is not teaching her own class or guest lecturing for others, she is working in her lab.
Carolina Galan, a UMass junior double majoring in biology and Spanish, has been working with Margulis since late summer of 2006.
“Everyone in the lab is motivated, interested and excited to learn something new … the conversation doesn’t focus solely on science, but ranges from politics to history to travel,” said Galan in an e-mail interview. “It is a wonderful, open atmosphere in which I feel free to ask questions and explore a range of ideas.”
Bruce Scofield, a 59-year-old Ph.D candidate in geosciences, has been assisting Margulis in her classes for seven years.
“She has a wide-angle perspective on science, doesn’t get misled by details and can spot a phony 10 miles away,” said Scofield, also via e-mail. “Her work is both revolutionary and foundational – she works on the pure level and is not driven by corporate concerns.”
Margulis’s frank attitude towards life allows her to say what she means, and nothing less. In regards to the multiple crises the world is now facing, Margulis said, “The way we live is nuts … I have this very strong feeling that one should work hard at what one can change and get somewhere with.”
She said, “Try to walk lightly, have a lighter footprint, but try to participate in activities that are gonna get somewhere because otherwise you are just hitting your head against the wall.”
And it is true that for any question Margulis asks, the correct answer is “bacteria.” She says that, after global warming and all the wars and harmful things humans are doing, “I just have this image of troubadours … they’re all sorts of microbes if you look closely and they’re singing … this song that used to be popular in my mother’s generation … ‘Got along without you before I met you / Gonna get along without you now.'”
She quotes a famous landscape naturalist in saying, “The algae are laughing – ‘Next time, no brains,’ they’re saying.” And Margulis is laughing with them.
Stephanie McPherson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org