Carl R. Woese changed the way that scientists looked at evolution and introduced a new domain of life through his research at the University of Illinois. Before Woese’s innovative research, scientists believed there were two domains of life, prokaryotes, which were bacteria, and eukaryotes, which was everything else, including animals. This belief was overturned when Woese discovered Archaea – prokaryotes that were distinct from bacteria and had similarities with eukaryotes.
Carl R. Woese was born in 1928 in Syracuse, New York. He attended Amherst College in Massachusetts and received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics. At Amherst a professor suggested he study biophysics, which he did at Yale, earning a PhD. He became deeply interested in how life evolved during his biophysics program.
He spent five years conducting research on bacteriophages at Yale and then four years at the General Electric Research Laboratory. In 1963 he joined the Department of Microbiology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Woese was interested in finding how life evolved and decided the best path was to compare RNA among organisms, specifically through 16S rRNA. While sequencing different bacteria, he came across one, methanogens, that did not look like other prokaryotes. He discovered that it was not bacteria but something different, which he named Archaea. Archaea proved to be a third domain of life.
For his work, Woese was made a MacArthur Fellow in 1984, a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1988, and a foreign member of the Royal Society in 2006. He also received the Leeuwenhoek Medal (the highest honor in microbiology) in 1992, a National Medal of Science in 2000, and the Crafoord Prize in 2003 from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which honors work that does not fall in the categories covered by Nobel Prizes.
He continued his work at the University of Illinois until his death. He conducted research in the Institute of Genomic Biology and in 2015 it became the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology. Carl Woese died on December 30, 2012, in Urbana, Illinois.
-Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology – Genomic research is currently conducted today here. It was named after Carl Woese in 2015
-Chemical Life Science Laboratory – where Carl Woese discovered Archaea.
For a great resource on Carl Woese and Archaea check out David Quamenn’s new book, The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life.
Carl Woese Papers, 1911-2013, Record Series 15/15/22. University of Illinois Archives.
Doon, B. (1993). Carl Woese at his best. Carl Woese Papers (Born Digital Records and Digital Surrogates). Record Series 15/15/22. University of Illinois Archives. Retrieved from https://digital.library.illinois.edu/items/54922330-996b-0134-2096-0050569601ca-0#?c=0&m=0&s=0&cv=0&r=0&xywh=-859%2C0%2C3567%2C1469
Institute for Genomic Biology. (n.d.) Carl Woese. Retrieved from https://www.igb.illinois.edu/people/archaea
Institute for Genomic Biology. (2013 February 5). Remembering Carl Woese. Retrieved from https://www.igb.illinois.edu/efi/article/remembering-carl-woese
Luehrsen, K. (1976). Carle Woese at Lightboard. Carl Woese Papers (Born Digital Records and Digital Surrogates). Record Series 15/15/22. University of Illinois Archives. Retrieved from https://digital.library.illinois.edu/items/984cd580-924c-0134-202e-0050569601ca-4#?c=0&m=0&s=0&cv=0&r=0&xywh=-1030%2C0%2C4397%2C1811
Stewart, Doug. (2018, April 30). Carl Woese. Retrieved from https://www.famousscientists.org/carl-woese/