How NASA Launched a Revolution in Biology

By: Alex Oh

Since its establishment, NASA has been known as an agency that specializes in space travel and “interstellar exploration.” However, many people don’t know that NASA has made breakthroughs in biology as well. It all started with a biologist named Lynn Margulis.

In 1970, the biologist applied for a grant from the National Science Foundation. She had written one paper concerning the evolution of life and was looking for funding from an organization so that she could continue to explore the subject of her paper. Unfortunately, she was quickly dismissed by the National Science Foundation. According to The Atlantic, in a 1998 interview, Margulis recalled what a NSF officer had told her: “There are some very important molecular biologists who think your work is shit.”

As a result, Margulis had to look for other options. Luckily, a NASA scientist took interest in Margulis’ study and agreed to fund her project.

“This was a key moment in modern biology,” said Robert Hazen, who works in the Carnegie

Institution for Science, in an interview this year.

In the past, many scientists supported neo-Darwinism, which is the idea that change and evolution occurs very slowly and is brought about by small genetic mutations that benefit the organism. As time passes, these small changes slowly lead to new forms of life. Prior to Margulis’ work at NASA, most scientists tracked this process through fossil records. Margulis, however, along with other scientists, discovered a new way to track evolutionary change. Using living bacteria, the biologist provided a “new, microbial view on the evolution of life”.

With this approach, Margulis was able to enforce an idea that had existed for a long time but never gained traction. The idea was two-fold. First, Margulis discovered that the mitochondria - found in the cells of complex organisms - are actually the remains of “once free-living bacteria.” Second, and more importantly, she discovered that the origin of eukaryotic cells, found in higher level organisms, dates back to the merging of two simpler celled organisms, thus creating a more complex organism. With these discoveries, Margulis showed how crucial the merging process was in evolution and how quickly change could occur.

While many scientists were doubtful at first, this idea would later be proven again by another man who worked at NASA named Carl Woese. Like Margulis, Woese was somewhat of an outsider compared to other scientists at that time, including well-known scientists like Francis Crick and James Watson. However, using RNA, a nucleic acid which takes information from DNA to synthesize protein, he was able to invent a new type of “fossil record”. In addition, in one of his works, Woese proved Margulis’ theory that the mitochondria was bacterial by comparing the RNA in the mitochondria to the bacterial and nuclear RNA, erasing any remaining doubt surrounding Margulis’ theories. As a result, in 1983, Margulis won membership in the National Academy of Sciences and later the National Medal of Science.

Today, thanks to the work of Margulis and Woese, biologists are studying bacteria in new and innovative ways. While originally an afterthought in the field of biology, microbiology can finally be recognized the way Margulis had envisioned it.

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