Mathias Grote

Professor for the History of Knowledge
University of Greifswald


Mathias Grote is professor for the history of knowledge at Greifswald University since 2023. He holds an M.A. in philosophy and biology and a PhD in microbiology (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin). He has held positions at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, the University of Exeter, and TU Berlin. His monograph, Membranes to Molecular Machines. Active Matter and the Remaking of Life (Chicago, 2019) investigates the molecular life sciences beyond genetics, especially biochemistry and biophysics since the 1970s, and the surge of the understanding of proteins as nanomachines. He currently researches the history of microbial ecology with a focus on concepts of communities, micropaleontology and biogeochemistry.



"Communities, Cycles, Environments: Microbes as Agents of Planetary Change"

The last half-century has seen a dramatic increase in interest in microbes not only by microbiologists. As Lynn Margulis has argued in 1986, they were “invisible champions” of life on earth, regarding their omnipresence, versatility and hardiness, but also complexity, interconnectedness and their impact on the planet. While Margulis remains an idiosyncratic voice, it seems many of the concepts or arguments she propagated have become mainstream. 
The sea change of the life sciences and medicine towards a microbe-centric perspective has often been linked to the surge of genomics and metagenomics. By contrast, I will analyze the contributions of biogeochemistry, micropaleontology, and generally natural history investigations to this development. My case will be microbial communities such as mats or biofilms. While Margulis has devoted considerable attention to marine microbial mats, such as in lagoons or estuaries, fossil analogues (stromatolites) have become a window into the early history of life on the planet. Mats as spatiotemporal arrangements of interacting microbes are tightly interconnected with their material surrounds: While metabolic activities shape the immediate microenvironments e.g. by photosynthesis, sulfur or nitrogen metabolism, such communities are also thought to have changed the face of the planet over the longue durée, such as by releasing oxygen. They have inspired theories about the impact of life on the planet and advanced to displays for the cycling of chemical elements and self-sustaining ecosystems. This example stands in for a broader change in the public perception of microbes: First, as objects of natural history, they have become associated with specific places as times of the planet, similar to visible plants and animals. Second, microbes, as other small creatures such as fungi, are increasingly seen as relevant, valuable forms of life. This not only in current ecological and biomedical science, but they are framed in an “idiom of promise” (Paxson/Helmreich) for improving human affairs, such as economy, society and self-understanding.