What were Carl Woee's contributions to biology

Carl R. Woese (Born July 15, 1928 in Syracuse, New York) is an American microbiologist and evolutionary biologist. He is known for his work on the evolution of the cell organization of bacteria and archaea, genetic phylogenesis and the introduction of archaea in 1977, a new domain (biology) alongside bacteria (Bacteria) and eukaryotes (Eucaryota). He also proposed the priority of RNA over DNA in 1967, a theory that Walter Gilbert took up in 1986 and became known as the RNA World Hypothesis.


  • B.A. Graduated from Amherst College in 1950 in Mathematics and Physics
  • Ph.D. in Biophysics from Yale University in 1953
  • Postdoc (Biophysics), Yale University, 1953-1960
  • as a biophysicist at the General Electric Research Laboratory 1960-1963 and the Pasteur Institute in Paris
  • Woese has been Professor of Microbiology at the Center for Advanced Study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign since 1964

3-domain model

In 1990, Carl Woese and Otto Kandler suggested that the 3-realm and 5-realm models should be discarded in favor of a 3-domain model: the domain of bacteria, archaea and eukarya. By introducing the new domain of the archaea, they changed the basis of the evolutionary family tree. Woeses phylogenetic taxonomy is based on genetic investigations (comparative sequence analysis of the ribosomal 16S rRNA of many different microorganisms) in contrast to the previous classification according to phenotypic differences. The more similar the rRNA sequences, the closer the organisms are to each other. This earned him a lot of criticism, including from famous biologists such as Salvador Luria and Ernst Mayr (see links). It was not without reason that Science magazine called Woese "Microbiology's Scarred Revolutionary". But the growing body of supporting data led the scientific community to accept the archaea.

Horizontal gene transfer, Darwinian threshold

According to Woese, at the beginning of life, organisms (including different species) freely exchange their genes in a shared gene pool (horizontal gene transfer). This free exchange was the driving force behind the early cell evolution. With the growing complexity of the organisms, this horizontal gene transfer became more and more difficult and the genes were no longer passed on to the organisms living in the vicinity but mainly to their offspring (vertical gene transfer). Carl Woese called the limit at which evolution prevails over mutations and selection the Darwinian threshold. Woese is saying goodbye to Darwin's 'principle of common descent' that life began with a primordial cell. He imagines life to come from three different cell types, the archaea, the bacteria and the eukaryotes.


  • "genius" Research Award from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation 1984
  • Member of the National Academy of Sciences since 1988
  • Leeuwenhoek Medal from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences 1992. A prize awarded every 10 years to a scientist who has made outstanding contributions in the field of microbiology over the past decade.
  • National Medal of Science (USA) 2000
  • Waksman Medal from the Waksman Institute of Microbiology at Rutgers University (USA) 2000
  • Crafoord Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences 2003 "for his discovery of a third domain of life"

See also

Categories: Biologist | Microbiologist | Evolutionary biologist