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1960s - Woese

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2001 - Spring


Carl R. Woese, Ph.D. ’53, a microbiologist at the University of Illinois (UI) at Urbana-Champaign, was among 12 scientists and engineers to receive the National Medal of Science in December. Woese, who was a doctoral student and postdoctoral fellow in biophysics at Yale in the 1950s, changed the way scientists classify life on Earth with his discovery of the archaea in the 1970s. Collaborating with microbiologist Ralph S. Wolfe, Woese overturned one of the major dogmas in biology. Until that time, biologists believed that all life belonged to one of two primary lineages, the eukaryotes and the prokaryotes. Woese and Wolfe showed the existence of a third group of organisms, the archaea, which are very simple in genetic makeup and tend to exist in extreme environments thought to resemble that of Earth in its early stages. “I am a molecular biologist turned evolutionist,” says Woese, who holds the Stanley O. Ikenberry Endowed Chair at UI. He calls the study of the archaea “central to the understanding of the nature of the ancestor common to all life.”