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Carl Woese wins the Crafoord Prize in Biosciences, given by the Royal Academy

Jim Barlow, Life Sciences Editor
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Carl R. Woese
Photo by Bill Wiegand
Carl R. Woese has been honored by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences with the Crafoord Prize in Biosciences.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Microbiologist Carl R. Woese today won the $500,000 Crafoord Prize in Biosciences given by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The annual prize marks accomplishments in scientific fields not covered by the Nobel Prizes in science, which the academy also selects. The king of Sweden will present the prize to Woese Sept. 24 in Stockholm.

Woese (pronounced WOHS) was honored for "his discovery of a third domain of life," the academy said.

Woese, the Stanley O. Ikenberry Endowed Chair at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, changed the way scientists classify life on Earth by his discovery of the archaea.

Woese joined the Illinois faculty in 1964 after working at Yale University (1955-60), General Electric Research Laboratory (1960-63) and the Pasteur Institute in Paris (1962).

In 1977, in collaboration with U. of I. microbiologist Ralph S. Wolfe, Woese overturned one of the major dogmas of biology. Until that time, biologists had taken for granted that all life on Earth belonged to one of two primary lineages, the eukaryotes (which include animals, plants, fungi and certain unicellular organisms such as paramecia) and the prokaryotes (all remaining microscopic organisms).

Woese and Wolfe showed that there are three primary lineages. Within the prokaryotes, there exist two distinct groups of organisms no more related to one another than they were to eukaryotes.

The new group of organisms – the archaea (pronounced ARE-kee-uh) – is very simple in its genetic makeup and tends to exist in "extreme" environments, niches devoid of oxygen and whose temperatures can be near or above the normal boiling point of water. Such conditions are reminiscent of what is considered to have been the early environment on Earth.

These simple microorganisms offer insights into the nature and evolution of cells, Woese has said. Because of Woese’s work, scientists now recognize three primary divisions of living systems, called eukaryotes, archaea and bacteria. The method Woese used to identify this "third form of life," which involved comparing the sequences of a particular molecule central to cellular function, called ribosomal RNA, has become the standard approach used to identify and classify all microorganisms.

In August 1996, Woese and colleagues (U. of I. professor Gary Olsen and researchers from The Institute for Genomic Research) published in the journal Science the first complete genome structure of an archaeon. Based on their work on Methanococcus janaschi, they concluded that the archaea are more closely related to humans than to bacteria. "The archaea are related to us, to the eukaryotes; they are descendants of the microorganisms that gave rise to the eukaryotic cell billions of years ago," Woese said at the time.

In a June 1998 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Woese proposed a theory of the universal ancestor, based on a genetic annealing model in which lateral gene transfer played a major role. He wrote: "The universal ancestor is not a discrete entity. It is, rather, a diverse community of cells that survives and evolves as a biological unit. This communal ancestor has a physical history but not a genealogical one. Over time, this ancestor refined into a smaller number of increasingly complex cell types with the ancestors of the three primary groupings of organisms arising as a result."

In the same journal in June 2002, Woese refined his theory, arguing that life did not begin with one primordial cell. Instead, he said there were initially at least three simple types of loosely constructed cellular organizations swimming in a pool of genes, evolving in a communal way that aided one another in bootstrapping into the three distinct types of cells by sharing through lateral gene transfer their evolutionary inventions.

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, and in 1992 was the 12th recipient of microbiology’s highest honor, the Leeuwenhoek Medal, given each decade by the Dutch Royal Academy of Science in the name of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, inventor of the microscope and discoverer of the microbial world. In 1989, Woese was appointed to the Center for Advanced Study, the highest faculty recognition of the Urbana-Champaign campus.

Woese was born July 15, 1928, in Syracuse, N.Y. He earned his bachelor’s degree in math and physics in 1950 from Amherst College and a doctorate in biophysics in 1953 from Yale University.

Ann-Greta and Holger Crafoord’s Fund was established in 1980 to promote basic research in mathematics, astronomy, the biosciences (particularly ecology), the geosciences and polyarthritis. The first Crafoord Prize was given in 1982. Holger Crafoord was the inventor of the artificial kidney.