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R. Woese named winner of National Medal of Science
Life Sciences Editor
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R. Woese, a University of Illinois microbiologist whose identification
of the archaea changed the way life is classified on Earth, is among
12 U.S. scientists and engineers named today (Nov. 13) by President
Clinton as winners of the National Medal of Science.
The medals -- which Clinton
said paid tribute to a group of researchers who have set new directions
in social policy, neuroscience, biology, chemistry, bioengineering,
mathematics, physics, and earth and environmental sciences -- will be
presented at an awards dinner Dec. 1 in Washington, D.C.
"Carl Woese's discovery
and elucidation of the archaea, in essence a third form of life, fundamentally
transformed our view of biology," UI Provost Richard Herman said today.
"Throughout his illustrious career at the University of Illinois, Professor
Woese has been recognized as one of the leading researchers in his field.
Today's award, yet another acknowledgement of his pre-eminent stature
among his peers, brings credit not only to Professor Woese, but also
to the university, which is honored to be home to such a distinguished
scientist and his groundbreaking work."
Woese, who holds the UI Stanley
O. Ikenberry Endowed Chair, said: "This award represents a recognition
by peers and public alike that the incredible diversity of life on this
planet, most of which is microbial, can only be understood in an evolutionary
"The central task of biology
in the new century will be to lay out and elaborate this overarching
framework of relationships among living organisms," Woese said. "This
endeavor will help us to understand how the essential unit of all life,
the cell, came into being. It will help us to understand the evolutionary
interactions among microbial species that gave rise to, sustain, and
have the potential to drastically alter the nature of our biosphere."
Woese joined the UI faculty
in 1964, after nine years in research positions at Yale University,
General Electric Research Laboratory and the Pasteur Institute in Paris.
In 1977, in collaboration
with UI microbiologist Ralph S. Wolfe, Woese overturned one of the major
dogmas of biology. Until then, all life on Earth belonged to one of
two primary lineages, the eukaryotes (animals, plants, fungi and certain
unicellular organisms such as paramecia) and the prokaryotes (all remaining
microscopic organisms). The archaea -- microorganisms that live in extreme
environments without oxygen in conditions thought to be reminiscent
of Earth's early environment -- changed that long-accepted view.
Woese's molecular studies
of RNA sequences led to the realization that the archaea were distinct
from the two accepted classifications. His analytic approach has since
become the standard for identifying and classifying microorganisms.
Now three primary divisions of life are recognized: eukaryotes, archaea
Woese received a "genius"
research award in 1984 from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
He was elected into the National Academy of Sciences in 1988. In 1992,
he won microbiology's highest honor, the Leeuwenhoek Medal, given each
decade by the Dutch Royal Academy of Science in the name of Antonie
van Leeuwenhoek, the inventor of the microscope and the discoverer of
the microbial world.
In 1989, Woese was appointed
to the UI Center for Advanced Study.
He was born in Syracuse,
N.Y. He earned a bachelor's degree in math and physics in 1950 from
Amherst College and a doctorate in biophysics in 1953 from Yale University.
Other 2000 winners of the
Medal of Science: Nancy Anreasen, University of Iowa; John Baldeschwieler,
California Institute of Technology; Gary Becker, University of Chicago;
Yuan-Cheng B. Fung, University of California at San Diego; Ralph Hirschmann,
University of Pennsylvania; Willis Lamb, University of Arizona; Jeremiah
Ostricker, Princeton University; Peter Raven, Missouri Botanical Garden
and Washington University in St. Louis; John Griggs Thompson, University
of Florida; Karen Uhlenbeck, University of Texas; and Gilbert White,
University of Colorado.