Carl Woese dies at 84; evolutionary biologist


Before Carl R. Woese, science divided the living world into two types of organisms: bacteria and everything else.

But the University of Illinois professor and colleagues in the 1970s discovered that microbes now called archaea look like bacteria but genetically are as different from bacteria as people and plants are. The discovery added archaea as a third domain of living things and helped pioneer the use of genetic sequences.

Woese died at his home in Urbana, Ill., on Dec. 30 from pancreatic cancer, the university announced. He was 84.


Hailed by colleagues as one of the great evolutionary biologists of the 20th century, Woese won the 2003 Crafoord Prize in Biosciences. That’s the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for scientific areas not considered for the Nobel.

“His work on the dynamics of evolution may help us combat the emergence of ‘superbugs’ with antibiotic resistance, as well as addressing fundamental questions about the origin of life,” said University of Illinois physics professor Nigel Goldenfeld, a longtime colleague.

“Originally, people thought that archaea live only in exotic and extreme environments,” Goldenfeld said. “But in the last few years, we have discovered that archaea thrive in oceans, lakes and even soils. They prevent the greenhouse gas methane escaping from the oceans into the atmosphere, and they are also important in the global flow of nitrogen in the biosphere. So to properly understand global climate change, we need to understand the archaea better.”

Woese’s breakthrough stemmed from his meticulous analysis of the ribosome, a protein synthesizer abundant in living cells. Rather than classifying organisms by observing physical traits, he looked for evolutionary relationships by comparing genetic sequences, colleagues said, focusing on a subunit of the ribosome.

That led to a new classification, distinct from bacteria and other organisms, which he and his colleagues at Illinois named archaeabacteria, later shortened to archaea.

Born July 15, 1928, in Syracuse, N.Y., Woese received bachelor’s degrees in math and physics from Amherst College in 1950 and a doctorate in biophysics at Yale University in 1953. He studied medicine for two years at the University of Rochester, was a postdoctoral researcher in biophysics at Yale and also worked at the General Electric research laboratory in Schenectady, N.Y.

Woese joined the faculty at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1964 as a microbiology professor.

In 1984, Woese received a MacArthur Foundation grant and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1988. He received the 1992 Leeuwenhoek Medal, considered microbiology’s premier honor, awarded by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, and received a National Medal of Science in 2000.

Woese is survived by his wife, Gabriella; a son, Robert; a daughter, Gabriella; and a sister, Donna Daniels.