Farewell Lynn Margulis

Lynn Margulis passed away last Tuesday 22 November 2011.

Margulis is best known for her serial endosymbiosis hypothesis: that eukaryotes are collections of co-evolved bacteria; that our mitochondria  were once free-living creatures that served up their ATPs to a host cell in exchange for free room and board.

It is a measure of a scientist’s life the number of hypotheses that go from heresy to dogma. Often one only really notices this when teaching undergrads. I used to enjoy, years ago, trying to blow the minds of freshman and sophomores by spinning stories of ancient collaborations in briny seas; how life “self assembled” in a cooperative framework. I’ll never forget the one year in Principles of Ecology, in the middle of waxing on about this great evolutionary milestone, when I caught the looks on the faces staring back. Distinctly bored; more than a little impatient.

“Errmm, so you know about this stuff?” I think I asked. “Doesn’t everybody?” said a pre-med.

This was Oklahoma. Margulis had won.

I end with a quote from the NYT obituary, linked above.

“More than 99.99 percent of the species that have ever existed have become extinct,” Dr. Margulis and Dorion Sagan wrote in “Microcosmos,” a 1986 book that traced, in readable language, the history of evolution over four billion years, “but the planetary patina, with its army of cells, has continued for more than three billion years. And the basis of the patina, past, present and future, is the microcosm — trillions of communicating, evolving microbes.”

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