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Our Chelsea Green Authors : Lynn Margulis

Lynn Margulis

Lynn Margulis, Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Geosciences at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, received the 1999 National Medal of Science from President Bill Clinton. She has been a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences since 1983 and of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences since 1997. Author, editor, or coauthor of chapters in more than forty books, she has published or been profiled in many journals, magazines, and books, among them Natural History, Science, Nature, New England Watershed, Scientific American, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Science Firsts, and The Scientific 100. She has made numerous contributions to the primary scientific literature of microbial evolution and cell biology.

Margulis's theory of species evolution by symbiogenesis, put forth in Acquiring Genomes (co-authored with Dorion Sagan, 2002), describes how speciation does not occur by random mutation alone but rather by symbiotic détente. Behavioral, chemical, and other interactions often lead to integration among organisms, members of different taxa. In well-documented cases some mergers create new species. Intimacy, physical contact of strangers, becomes part of the engine of life's evolution that accelerates the process of change. Margulis works in the laboratory and field with many other scientists and students to show how specific ancient partnerships, in a given order over a billion years, generated the cells of the species we see with our unaided eyes.The fossil record, in fact, does not show Darwin's predicted gradual changes between closely related species but rather the "punctuated equilibrium" pattern described by Eldredge and Gould: a jump from one to a different species.

She has worked on the "revolution in evolution" since she was a graduate student. Over the past fifteen years, Margulis has cowritten several books with Dorion Sagan, among them What is Sex? (1997), What is Life? (1995), Mystery Dance: On the Evolution of Human Sexuality (1991), Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Evolution from Our Microbial Ancestors (1986), and Origins of Sex:Three Billion Years of Genetic Recombination (1986).

Her work with K.V. Schwartz provides a consistent formal classification of all life on Earth and has lead to the third edition of Five Kingdoms: An Illustrated Guide to the Phyla of Life on Earth (1998). Their classification scheme was generated from scientific results of myriad colleagues and its logical-genealogical basis is summarized in her single-authored book Symbiosis in Cell Evolution: Microbial Communities in the Archean and Proterozoic Eons (second edition, 1993). The bacterial origins of both chloroplasts and mitochondria are now well established. Currently, with colleagues and students, she explores the possible origin of cilia from spirochetes.

Since the mid-1970s, Margulis has aided James E. Lovelock, FRS, in documenting his Gaia Theory, which posits that the Earth's surface interactions among living beings, rocks and soil, air and water have created a vast, self-regulating system. From the vantage of outer space the Earth looks like an amazing being; from the vantage of biochemistry it behaves in many ways like a giant organism.

Photo by Luis Rico

Cristóbal Gabarrón Foundation International Awards

FCG International Science and Research 2008:


This decision was made “because of her pioneering research work in the field of biology and evolution through the study of certain bacteria. Among the numerous contributions made by Lynn Margulis we can highlight the formulation of innovative theories, such as symbiogenesis, that explain the evolutionary origin of the cells belonging to complex organisms. From the outset, Professor Margulis has supported Lovelock’s “Gaia” concept, contributing to it from the field of biology and enabling it to become considered as a scientific theory.

“Her work is an example of constancy and persistence in the world of science since she needed fifteen years of attempts until she was able to publish her studies on eukaryotic cells in 1967. The Jury has also valued the educational ability of this researcher who has undertaken scientific collaboration projects with several Spanish universities. Margulis has received an honorary doctorate degree from numerous universities in our country and, in 1999, she was awarded the National Medal of Science by the United States Government.” According to the jury that met in Valladolid on June 23, 2008, chaired by, Mr. Julio Fermoso García, Professor of Medicine at the University of Salamanca and President of Caja Duero Savings Bank, and made up by the following members: Mr. Alberto Aguirre de Cárcer, Deputy Director of Information at ABC Newspaper; Mr. José Ballesta Germán, Professor of Medicine at the University of Murcia and Minister for Public Works, Housing and Transport of the Government of the Region of Murcia (Spain); Mr. Luis Jaramillo Guerreira, Director of COPE Radio Castilla y León; Dr. Regina Revilla Pedreira, Director of External Relations and Communication at Merck, Sharp & Dohme.

The Bacteria World

Before Margulis work, evolutionism centered on the study of animals and plants, they were considered actors of innovations that had led to the current levels of complexity and specialization. Margulis indicated that bacteria, until then only considered of interest to bacteriological medicine, was in fact the artifice of that complexity and the current state of different organisms. Against the vision of animals and plants, and in general all multicell creatures, as individual beings she proposed the vision of self-organised cellular communities, giving those cells the maximum evolutionary potential.

Serial Endosymbiosis Theory (SET)

Following fifteen failed attempts to publish her work on the origin of eukaryotic cells, in 1966 she managed to get the Journal of Theoretical Biology to accept and finally publish, at the end of 1967, her article entitled «Origin of Mitosing Cells» (thanks to, as she herself has pointed out, the special interest of its then Editor, James F. DaNelly). It was Max Taylor, professor at University of British Columbia, specialising in protists, who baptised it with the abbreviation SET (Serial Endosymbiosis Theory).

Margulis continued to work on her theory of the origin of eukaryotic cells and what was initially an article became a book. Again she failed in her attempts to have it published (what was then her publishing company, Academia Press, having retained the manuscript for five months, sent her a letter saying it had been rejected without giving her and further explanation). Following over a year of perseverance, the book was published by Yale University Press. Since then, SET has slowly made its way in the scientific world and today it is considered proven in three quarters of its contents.


Margulis, who is characterized by searching for and evaluating the work of her predecessors, instead of diluting these by creating new terms, she has always tried to use the terms coined by previous authors. This is the case of the term symbiogenesis (Konstantin Merezhkovsky, 1855-1921), a term which was rescued by her and with which she defines the central nucleus of her contribution to evolutionism.

Margulis considers that, in the same way that eukaryotic cells (the origin of protists, animals, fungi and plants) originate from symbiogenesis, most of the characteristics acquired by multicell beings are the result of symbiotic incorporation of, mainly, free-life bacteria. She reduces the importance of random mutations postulated by neo-Darwinism considering them merely incidental and offers a new vision on evolution by incorporation. Organisms tend to organise themselves in consortia: “ ‘Independent’ life tends to join together and re-emerge as a new whole on a superior and broader level of organisation.” With this theory, Margulis opposes the individualist vision offered by neo-Darwinism.

    Lynn's Books

    Luminous Fish

    Tales of Science and Love

    A unique look at the inner lives of scientists.

    Dazzle Gradually

    Reflections on the Nature of Nature

    The sometimes-dry topics of evolution and ecology come alive in this new collection of essays.

    The Lost Tapes of Ian McHarg

    Collaboration with Nature, Ecological Planning Lecture

    A gift to future generations, this CD, made from rare tapes lost until now, presents McHarg waxing profound on a thermodynamic definition of creativity as matter and energy raised to higher levels of order; evolution both physical and biological (plants, animals, and microorganisms) in the context of nature; and the criteria and attributes of the creative process.


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