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Lynn Margulis 1938 – 2011

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Biologist Lynn Margulis, best known for her work on the theory of endosymbiosis, died on 22 November at her home in Amherst, Massachusetts. She was 73.

Endosymbiosis is the process by which two unrelated organisms fuse into one. Early in her career, Margulis proposed that the eukaryotic cell evolved from an endosymbiotic combination of separate bacteria. Specifically, organelles such as mitochondria and chloroplasts, which have their own DNA, would have originally been free bacteria absorbed by another prokaryote. Although it was treated skeptically at first, the idea is now widely accepted as a crucial step in the evolution of eukaryotes.

“She believed in taking a theory and pushing it to the limits and her endosymbiosis work is a perfect example of that,” says Steve Goodwin dean of the College of Natural Sciences at University of Massachusetts Amherst where Margulis was a professor.

“I think she had a sense that there was a tendency among conventional scientists to stop a little too soon,” says Goodwin.


Dr. Margulis is also known for her contribution to the Gaia hypothesis, which suggests that the interactions between earth’s organisms and ecosystems from a single, self-regulating system that promotes optimal conditions for life.

Margulis’ creative approach to research, her depth of knowledge across diverse specialties and her infectious excitement about science set her apart, Goodwin says. “She had a way of making connections between things that other people just wouldn’t normally make,” he adds.

Margulis was born in 1938 in Chicago, Illinois. She enrolled in the University of Chicago at age 14 and graduated in 1957. She earned a master’s in genetics and zoology at the University of Wisconsin in 1960 and a PhD in genetics from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1965.

Margulis was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1983 and won the National Medal of Science in 1999.

Margulis co-authored several books along with her son Dorian Sagan, one of two children from her to marriage to astronomer Carl Sagan. Margulis had two other children from a second marriage.

Image credit: University of Massachusetts Amherst

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  1. Report this comment

    Kyle Thomas Glasser said:

    It is now the high time to do our own share in protecting Earth and her wonderful creatures.Its about time to give back to our wonderful planet by taking good care of her.

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    Sue Ann Bowling said:

    Very sorry to hear this. Her Microcosmos is still one of the books that greatly influenced me.

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    Clare Dudman said:

    I had the privilege to hear her give a lecture in Paris in 2009. It was inspiring: micro-organisms moving to music! Her enthusiasm was infectious. Great character and such fascinating science.

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    Anna Lach said:

    I had the honour to meet her in person and be a guest at her home. She was a colourful, warm human being and a brilliant scientist.

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    Eluemuno R Blyden said:

    A great mind and free spirit leaves us to journey on! Thank you Lynn, for your inspiration and fearlessness.

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    Jonathan milner said:

    I read Microcosmos when a Biology undergraduate and it hugely influenced me. This was at a time when endosymbiosis was still controversial, and I remember my tutor scalding me for reading such rubbish! Anyway, you were right Lynn. The world has lost a wonderful and inspirational mind.