Discovering a ‘third kingdom’: How this scientist upended Darwin’s ‘tree of life’

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On Nov. 3, 1977, a new scientific revolution was heralded to the world — but it came cryptically, in slightly confused form. The front page of that day’s New York Times carried a headline: “Scientists Discover a Form of Life That Predates Higher Organisms.”…

This “separate form of life” would become known as the archaea, reflecting the impression that these organisms were primitive, primordial, especially old.

Woese Carl
Carl Woese – microbiologist, identification of the archaea changed the way life is classified on Earth

Charles Darwin himself suggested (first in an early notebook, later in “On the Origin of Species”) that the history of life could be drawn as a tree — all creatures originating in a single trunk, then diverging into different lineages like major limbs, branches and twigs, with leaves of the canopy representing the multiplicity of living species. But if that simile was valid, then the prevailing tree of 1977, the orthodox image of life’s history, was wrong. It showed two major limbs arising from the trunk. According to what Woese had just announced to the world, it ought to show three.

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[Carl R. Woese, a microbiologist at the University of Illinois] was a rebel researcher… . He had his Warholian 15 minutes of fame on the front page of The Times, and then disappeared back into his lab in Urbana… . But he is the most important biologist of the 20th century that you’ve never heard of. He asked profound questions that few other scientists had asked. … And in the process, he effectively founded a new branch of science.

Read full, original post: The Scientist Who Scrambled Darwin’s Tree of Life

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