Microbiologist Carl R. Woese '50 in 1977 discovered an entirely new domain
of one-celled organismsthe archaeaand thus rewrote the
basic phylogenetic tree of life that had remained essentially unchanged
since Darwin. His astonishing discovery shook the science of biology to its roots
. . . and triggered some powerful resistance among mainstream biologists who continue
to challenge his findings (see "When
By Tom Nugent
He's a legend in American biology, a research giant who has
changed the way science thinks about evolution.
You'd never know it by looking at his lab. Tucked away on the third floor
of an ordinary red-brick classroom building, Dr. Carl Woese's research facility
at the University of Illinois hardly seems impressive at first glance: there are
a couple of computers, a couple of battered filing cabinets, and a dog-eared paperback
copy of Darwin's Origin of Species lying on a cluttered table.
Did this drab workspace really provide the setting for Woese's paradigm-busting
discovery of a new form of life?
As the headquarters for one of the world's most complex and challenging scientific
investigations, the lab strikes a visitor as surprisingly low-tech. Nor does the
scientist himself seem especially imposing. Small-boned and slender at age 74,
he wears a dull green work shirt, wrinkle-free polyester slacks that look as if
they just came off the rack at Wal-Mart, and a pair of frayed Nike running shoes
with their tongues hanging out.
At first glance it's hard to believe you're in the presence of a molecular
biologist whose theories about the origins of life have stood contemporary evolution
on its head.
Quiet and self-effacingone colleague even describes him as shythe
soft-spoken Dr. Woese doesn't give many interviews. But if you can find a
way to get him talking about how modern biology has completely dropped the
ball by mostly ignoring the microorganisms that make up 95 percent of life
on Earth, he'll startle you with the passionate intensity of his blunt declarations.
I'm going to be scandalous about this, he exclaims, when asked
to describe his most important contribution to biology. I've
been put here to pick up where Darwin left off! All of his descendants dropped
the balland you had to turn to some people who knew about molecular biology
in order to get the ball rolling again. But now it's happening, and I'm
feeling more hopeful than ever.
He pauses, gazes around the dusty lab, then waves toward the flickering computer
screens where vast arrays of RNA-sequencing data await his next operation. I'll
tell you this much: If Darwin were alive today, he'd be sitting in my labnot
in the lab of some 'classical evolutionist.' Because he would know where
the forefront of evolution was. He knew it then, and he would know it now.
The forefront is the molecular world. It's the microbial world as welland
that's 95 percent of the diversity of life on this planet!
As many of his friends and colleagues have noted, the outspoken
Woese (rhymes with knows) doesn't mince words while describing
the wrong turn that mainstream evolutionary science took soon after
Darwin. In the unvarnished opinion of this venerable microbiologist, who's
been conducting research and teaching students at the University of Illinois since
1964, the ball was dropped when the evolutionists of the modern era
began using their high-tech tools to analyze the dynamics of cellular physiology
from moment to moment while losing sight, for the most part, of the key role played
by evolution in the development of those very processes over eons.
According to Woese (whose early training at Amherst was in physics, not biology),
the key flaw in contemporary evolutionary science has been its failure to confront
the problem of how microorganisms evolved during the 3.5 billion or so years that
preceded the emergence of larger life forms.
Look, the study of life just doesn't make any sense unless you talk
about evolution throughout its entire history, he told Amherst. Life
is a historical unfolding, an ongoing process, and to understand that process
you have to do more than just study it at any given point in time.
Photo: Bill Wiegand