Carl R. Woese

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

July 15, 1928 - December 30, 2012


Election Year: 1988
Scientific Discipline: Environmental Sciences and Ecology
Membership Type: Member

Carl Woese was a microbiologist who revolutionized the field of phylogenic taxonomy. The tree of life originally included two domains, prokaryotic and eukaryotic, until Woese disproved this hypothesis through the use of ribosomal RNA (rRNA). He sequenced and compared the 16S rRNA (a component of the small subunit of a prokaryotic ribosome) of bacteria and elucidated that Archaea had evolved separately from the universal ancestor of all life, simultaneously setting the standard for determining evolutionary relatedness among organisms. These studies allowed him to propose the idea that RNA was the precursor to life on Earth because of its catalytic tendencies, stability, and ability to store genetic information.

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