Late UMass biologist wins microorganic honor

  • Evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis. COURTESY UMASS AMHERST

Staff Writer
Published: 10/23/2018 12:49:40 AM

AMHERST — When evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis died in 2011, she was world-renowned in her field. Years later, her name continues to appear in that same field — and in the guts of termites.

Last month, a research paper in a microbial ecology publication, The ISME Journal, featured a title that reads in part, “Genome analyses of uncultured TG2/ZB3 bacteria in ‘Margulisbacteria.’” The article dealt with bacteria in termite guts, and referenced a candidate phylum of bacteria named after the prominent University of Massachusetts Amherst biologist.

As it turns out, a group of researchers in 2016 discovered 47 possible phylum-level bacterial lineages in an aquifer system and named one after Margulis.

“I think it’s fantastic and totally appropriate,” said Margulis’ daughter, Jennifer, adding that she had no idea a phylum of bacteria had been named after her mother. “My mother used to say she was a spokesperson for bacteria and other microorganisms.”

UMass lecturer Michael Dolan, Margulis’ former student, was the person who drew the Gazette’s attention to the newly named bacteria. He said the recent discovery of Margulisbacteria living in symbiosis with other bacteria in termite guts was appropriate, given that Margulis had spent many years studying that “evolutionary wonderland.”

“People are still discovering new bacteria there,” he said of termite guts. “And one of them happened to be this Margulisbacteria.”

Margulis received a National Medal of Science from President Bill Clinton in 1999, and was known for her work on the theory of symbiogenesis, which challenges a central tenet of neo-Darwinism that evolution is heavily dependent on natural selection. Instead, she argued, symbiosis played an important role in evolution.

“Life did not take over the globe by combat, but by networking,” Margulis and her son with famed astronomer Carl Sagan, Dorion Sagan, wrote in 1997. “Life forms multiplied and complexified by co-opting others, not just by killing them.”

“She was well known in Amherst, and she was well known around the world as an important figure,” Dolan said. Her work was on the leading edge of her field, he added, and now others are catching up and adding to her contributions.

Dolan said that with technology available now, researchers are finding symbionts — organisms living in symbiosis — everywhere.

“It has become much more widely studied than when she first started,” he said.

As for the fact that a candidate phylum of bacteria now carries her last name, Jennifer Margulis said she’s thrilled, adding that bacteria are very important.

“The more attention we can pay to them the better,” she said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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