200 Years of Illinois: Archaea, the third kind of life on earth

woeseToday we turn over the 200 Years of Illinois feature to Steven Lenz and Nicholas Hopkins, authors of an essay (reprinted below) in the new UIP book The University of Illinois: Engine of Innovation. Lenz and Hopkins look into the life and work of longtime U. of I. figure Carl Woese.

Carl Woese (1928-2013) received a bachelor’s degree in math and physics from Amherst College in 1950. Despite his fascination with physical phenomena, however, Woese opted to explore the relationship between physics and the world of living things. He completed his graduate work at Yale University just as scientists were becoming aware of the role of the genetic code in the evolution of life. Marked by an independent turn of mind, however, Woese chose to explore the origins of the genetic code itself rather than to study its operation in living cells as had Nobel laureates James Watson and Francis Crick. He pursued this curiosity through postdoctoral work at Yale and the General Electric Research Laboratory in Schenectady, New York, and brought it with him to the University of Illinois, where he was recruited to the faculty (and immediately tenured) in 1964. Woese would remain in Urbana-Champaign for the rest of his career.

hoxieWoese’s research revolutionized the field of biology. For centuries it had been an article of faith that all life could be broken down into two kingdoms—bacteria, and larger, more complex organisms such as plants and animals, which are called eukaryotes. Initially, Archaea had been classified as bacteria, but Woese, after studying cultures that originated in the stomach of a campus cow, determined that they had distinctive gene structures and metabolic pathways that set them apart. They constituted a third branch of life. Woese first published his findings in 1977, but they remained controversial for decades. Because his ultimate goal was an understanding of the deep history of evolution, Woese focused on Archaea’s distinctive internal mechanics and their relationship to other life forms. Despite the public debate over the classification of Archaea, his principal concern continued to be the exploration of how molecular and genetic structures could illuminate the course of evolution.

In the last decade of his life Woese’s focus on genetic structures also contributed to the horizontal gene transfer hypothesis, an instrument for explaining the development of life forms across the three kingdoms of living organisms. He argued that typical Darwinian “vertical” evolution only begins after the development of the three kingdoms of life. By contrast, Woese asserted that patterns of horizontal transfer indicated that early organisms would trade their own genetic information with each other.

The impact of Carl Woese’s innovative ideas has been felt in fields as diverse as evolutionary biology, bioinformatics, biochemistry, medicine, and ecology. By the end of his career, his single-minded pursuit of some of the most difficult questions in biology had won him a MacArthur Fellowship and, in 2003, the Crafoord Prize in Biosciences, awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences to mark accomplishments in scientific fields not covered by the Nobel Prize. Woese received Crafoord Prize (and a $500,000 award) from the King of Sweden in Stockholm.