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Microbiologist Carl R. Woese named winner of National Medal of Science

Carl R. Woese

Awards Webcast - Dec 1, 2000
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Jim Barlow, Life Sciences Editor
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Carl 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 framework.

"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 and bacteria.

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.