Lynn Margulis

Women in STEM
Women in STEM
Lynn Margulis

Birth: March 5, 1938

Death: November 22, 2011

Specialty: Biology

Major Contributions:

Theory of symbiogenesis

National Medal of Science

NASA Public Service Award for Astrobiology

Image: Wikimedia

Never content with just accepting the answers put before her, Lynn Margulis spent her life questioning. In elementary school she questioned the idea that just because a teacher said it was true did that make it true? As she continued her education she learned to question even more, relying on original texts instead of snippets from textbooks to explore the works of scientists like Isaac Newton and Gregor Mendel. 

She studied genetics and zoology earning various degrees in both fields, culminating with a doctorate in genetics from the University of California-Berkeley in 1965. Just two short years later she wrote her first publication questioning the prevailing theories about evolution at the time which stated that the primary mechanism for mutation was random. Instead, she advanced and substantiated with microbiological evidence a theory that had been introduced in the early 1900s that states that several key organelles of eukaryotes originated as a symbiosis between separate single-celled organisms. According to this theory mitochondria, plastids, and possibly other organelles representing formerly free-living bacteria were taken inside another cell as an endosymbiont around 1.5 billion years ago. Molecular and biochemical evidence suggest that mitochondria developed from proteobacteria and chloroplasts from cyanobacteria.

Margulis recalled her paper being rejected by fifteen journals before it was finally published. Two years later she expanded this paper into the first of many books published on this and other science topics.  At first her theories were rejected by the scientific community, but Margulis stood by her work and ten years after her first paper she was vindicated when a new paper was published giving support to her ideas. She was also a proponent of the Gaia hypothesis, another controversial idea that has drawn harsh criticism from some in the science community.

Not just a researcher and author, she was also an educator at both Boston University and the University of Massachusetts Amherst where she was a Distinguished Professor in both Biology and then Geosciences.

While Margulis had her fair share of detractors and controversial ideas, she was never afraid to push science and scientific thought and serves as a reminder for us to do the same – question things put before you by others and go out and create knowledge for yourself.

Written by Angela Goad


Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science-and the World

Wikipedia: Lynn Margulis

Understanding Evolution: Endosymbiosis: Lynn Margulis

Lynn Margulis, Evolution Theorist, Dies at 73 (NYT)

Wikipedia: Symbiogenesis

Lynn Margulis 2004 Rutgers Interview (YouTube)

See Also:

Lynn Margulis discusses her love of science (YouTube)

Wikipedia: Gaia Hypothesis