Professor Carl Woese: Scientist whose work revealed the 'third domain' of life

 

Carl Woese was a biophysicist and microbiologist who uncovered the "third domain" of life, with the detection of archaea. In doing so he redrew the taxonomic tree and proved that all life on Earth is related.

In 1977, Woese and his colleague George Fox published two papers that stunned the scientific world and overturned the universally held assumption about the basic structure of the tree of life. They concluded that microbes known as archaea are as distinct from bacteria as plants and animals. Before this, scientists had grouped archaea together with bacteria, and asserted that the tree of life had only two main branches – bacteria (called prokaryotes), and everything else, including plants and animals (eukaryotes).

The Stanford microbiologist Justin Sonnenburg said, "The 1977 paper is one of the most influential in microbiology and arguably, all of biology. It ranks with the works of Watson and Crick and Darwin, providing an evolutionary framework for the incredible diversity of the microbial world."

Woese noted that microbes, although invisible, comprise far more of the living protoplasm on Earth than all humans, animals and plants combined. Yet little research had been carried out on them. "Imagine walking out in the countryside and not being able to tell a snake from a cow from a mouse from a blade of grass," he said. "That's been the level of our ignorance." Woese worked out the early form of evolution by studying the genetic codes, or sequences, of different types of cells. He developed a DNA fingerprinting technique to show his finding.

In Woese's taxonomic redrawing, his three-domain system, based on genetic relationships rather than obvious morphologic similarities, divided life into 23 main divisions, incorporated within three domains: bacteria, archaea and eukaryota. He created a metric for determining evolutionary relatedness.

The discovery stemmed from years of analysis of ribosomes, protein-building structures abundant in all living cells. Rather than classifying organisms by observing their physical traits, as others had done, using ribosomal DNA, Woese looked for evolutionary relationships by comparing genetic sequences. He focused on a sub-unit of the ribosome, and found that the ribosomal sequences of some methane-producing microbes formed a new group distinct from bacteria and all other organisms – the archaebacteria, later shortened to archaea. He established that archaea, previously thought to be within the prokaryote group, had in fact evolved separately from a universal ancestor shared by all three groups.

Archaea, which are genetically relatively simple, were initially believed to exist only in extreme environments such as undersea volcanic vents and hot springs. However, since Woese's initial research they have been discovered in many places, including in plankton and in the human body.

Woese encountered some ridicule and found his work misrepresented by creationists, who claimed that evolution was a theory in crisis. Woese derided their views, saying: "Intelligent design is not science. It makes no predictions and doesn't offer any explanation whatsoever, except for 'God did it'."

A former colleague believed, "He turned a field that was primarily subjective into an experimental science, with wide-ranging and practical implications for microbiology, ecology and even medicine that are still being worked out."

Born in Syracuse, New York, in 1928, Woese obtained a BA in mathematics and physics from Amherst College in Massachusetts in 1950. He completed his PhD in biophysics at Yale. After a post-doctoral appointment at the University of Rochester studying medicine, he returned to Yale, spending the next five years as a researcher in biophysics, while also working as a biophysicist at the General Electric Research Laboratory in Schenectady, New York. In 1964, he joined the University of Illinois as a professor of microbiology, where he spent the rest of his career.

Described as "the most pure of scientists", he was committed to dissemination of scientific knowledge and was a member of the National Center for Science Education because he believed that secondary school biology teaching was poorly taught and needed overhauling.

Woese received numerous awards, including a MacArthur Foundation "genius" award in 1984, the Leeuwenhoek Medal (microbiology's principal honour) from the Dutch Royal Academy of Arts and Science in 1992 and the National Medal of Science in 2000.

In 2003, he received the Crafoord Prize in Biosciences from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, considered the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for areas of science that fall outside of the main Nobel categories; this award finally recognised his "discovery of a third domain of life". Many microbial species, such as Pyrococcus woesei, Methanobrevibacterium woesei, and Conexibacter woesei, are named in his honour.

Carl Woese, microbiologist: born Syracuse, New York 15 July 1928; married Gabriella (one daughter, one son); died Urbana, Illinois 30 December 2012.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
Laura Trott with her gold
Commonwealth Games
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman
film
News
Bryan had a bracelet given to him by his late father stolen during the raid
people
Sport
France striker Loic Remy
sportThe QPR striker flew to Boston earlier in the week to complete deal
Extras
indybestSpice up your knife with our selection of delicious toppings
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Horticulture Lecturer / Tutor / Assessor - Derbyshire

£15 - £18 per hour: Randstad Education Nottingham: As a result of our successf...

Retail Lecturer / Assessor / Tutor - Derbyshire

£15 - £18 per hour: Randstad Education Nottingham: Randstad Education are succ...

Business Studies Tutor / Assessor / Lecturer - Tollerton

£15 - £18 per hour: Randstad Education Nottingham: Randstad Education are succ...

ERP Business/ Implementation Analyst

£40000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: This is an e...

Day In a Page

A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried