Revolutionary University of Illinois Biologist Carl R. Woese Dies
Renowned University of Illinois professor Carl R. Woese, who revolutionized biology with the discovery of a “third domain” of life, died Sunday at his home in Urbana after a seven-month battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 84.
Colleagues on Monday said Mr. Woese will be remembered as one of the most influential scientists in world history because of his contributions.
Mr. Woese and his colleagues wrote two papers published in 1977 that overturned a universally held assumption about the basic structure of the tree of life by adding a third primary division of life. They reported that the microbes now known as archaea (are-KEY-uh) were as distinct from bacteria as plants and animals. Scientists had previously lumped archaea together with bacteria.
Mr. Woese figured 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.
He recalled how the scientific community derided his finding. He was vindicated 19 years later after a research team confirmed his work.
Yet Mr. Woese retained his revolutionary nature: He shunned media attention; had no interest in obtaining patents or realizing financial gain from his work; wore khakis, plaid shirts and sneakers every day; enjoyed the music of jazz greats such as Miles Davis; read poetry to and with his wife, and walked to work each day from his modest on-campus home of 48 years, Lewin said.
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And for a limited time, you can read his essay from 1981 that outlines the evidence for archaebacteria as a domain of life, for free, here.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about the recent discoveries in molecular phylogeny is that they show how much information about the very early stages of evolution is locked into the cell itself. It is no longer necessary to rely solely on speculation to account for the origins of life.