February 15, 2008

Famed Evolutionist Lynn Margulis Lectures for Darwin Days

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Prof. Lynn Margulis, geosciences, University of Massachusetts Amherst, is known throughout the scientific community for her work in evolutionary biology. Yesterday, she delivered a lecture entitled “Darwin’s Truths and Symbiogenesis” as part of the Paleontological Research Institute at Cornell’s third annual Darwin Days celebration.
Margulis is well known for her contributions to the endosymbiotic theory, which explains that the organelles of cells are derived from bacteria. However, when she first suggested her ideas to the scientific community, she faced skepticism for many years.
“I ignore what most people say. I got in trouble with my teachers because I was reading outside my field,” Margulis said. “I was always driven by the interest in the material rather than what people said I should know and shouldn’t know and what I should do.”
Such theories on endosymbiosis are now becoming widely accepted due to Margulis’s persistence. According to Margulis, the theories are becoming popular now for the same reason that Darwinian evolution came to be widely accepted. That is, no evidence has been found to contradict them but a lot of evidence has been found to support them.
Margulis received her undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago and her Ph.D. from the University of California Berkeley. She claimed that one of the most memorable moments from her career were when she was a graduate student at Berkeley and figured out that the cilia of cells must have originally come from bacteria.
Margulis said, “I remember the exact moment … I was a graduate student, I was in the Berkeley library, and I thought ‘Oh my God it’s got to be right.’”
Technology is much more advanced now than it was in the ’60s and there is a lot of data coming in to support Margulis’s theories. She is also currently working on trying to reconstruct the early record of life from fossils, specifically microbial fossils. She has recently been to Morocco to look at rocks that are evidence of ancient microbial communities.
Margulis said that her interest in nature led her into the field of evolutionary biology. She now teaches a course at the University of Massachusetts Amherst called Environmental Evolution, where students study how evolution occurred before animals.
“It’s much more subtle but to me it’s much more interesting. We’ve got organisms that have 10,000 genders instead of just two,” said Margulis.
Darwin once said that the oddities and peculiarities of things had to be studied, otherwise people would think that things formed the way they are now. That is why, Margulis said, she devotes her time to studying oddities and peculiarities.
Margulis has a close connection to Cornell because her daughter, Jennifer Margulis, graduated from Cornell in 1990 and her son Jeremy Sagan also attended the University. She was also married for a time to famed Cornell astronomy Prof. Carl Sagan.
She said that she gladly accepted when Prof. William Provine, ecology and evolutionary biology, asked her if she would be willing to speak.
“I want to support every effort to celebrate this roughly 200th anniversary of the birth of Darwin. I’ve had a great time with the Cornell students,” Margulis said.
Many students, professors and members of the community came to the lecture to hear Margulis speak.
“I heard that Lynn Margulis was coming and I got pretty excited,” said Kelly Cronin ’08.
“The Bio[logy] office sent out an e-mail [about the lecture] and it sounded interesting,” agreed Prishti Biwas ’09.
Much of Margulis’ lecture was about the Gaia hypothesis, which is an ecological theory that defines the Earth as a single living system. She also spoke about her work with and the history of endosymbiosis.