Center for Advanced Study Lecture: "Redrawing the Tree of Life: Carl Woese and the Revolution He Triggered" by David Quammen

9/25/2018 11:48:05 AM Sharlene Denos

During the mid 1970s, at the University of Illinois in Urbana, CAS Professor of Microbiology Carl R. Woese developed an extraordinary scientific methodology for investigating the earliest history of life on Earth. His approach involved the laborious genetic sequencing of a single kind of molecule—a sort of molecular Rosetta Stone—that exists in all living creatures, and the comparison of sequences from one kind of creature and another. Woese’s efforts led to an immediate achievement of front-page importance: the discovery of “a separate form of life,” a third kingdom of living creatures, previously unsuspected, which came to be known as the Archaea. He had redrawn that classic image of evolutionary history, the tree of life. In the longer term, Woese’s influence and the work of his scientific successors brought an even more startling recognition: that genes have sometimes moved sideways, across major boundaries, from one species into another. This bizarre phenomenon is called horizontal gene transfer (HGT). Woese’s work, the work of his successors, and the illumination of HGT have yielded a profound recognition: The tree of life is not shaped like any known tree. The history of life is a wondrous, perplexing tangle.

Reception to follow

This lecture is part of the CAS @ 60 series

Cosponsored by: Carl Woese Institute for Genomic Biology, Center for Advanced Study, College of Engineering, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, Department of Microbiology, School of Molecular & Cellular Biology, Spurlock Museum, University Archives