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Mon Aug 13, 2018, 07:07 PM

The Scientist Who Scrambled Darwin's Tree of Life

Last edited Mon Aug 13, 2018, 10:39 PM - Edit history (3)

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/13/magazine/evolution-gene-microbiology.html

The Scientist Who Scrambled Darwin’s Tree of Life
How the microbiologist Carl Woese fundamentally changed the way we think about evolution and the origins of life.
By David Quammen
Aug. 13, 2018

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.” A photograph showed a man named Carl R. Woese, a microbiologist at the University of Illinois in Urbana, with his feet up on his office desk. He was 50ish, with unruly hair, wearing a sport shirt and Adidas sneakers. Behind him was a blackboard, on which was scrawled a simple treelike figure in chalk. The article, by a veteran Times reporter named Richard D. Lyons, began:

Scientists studying the evolution of primitive organisms reported today the existence of a separate form of life that is hard to find in nature. They described it as a “third kingdom” of living material, composed of ancestral cells that abhor oxygen, digest carbon dioxide and produce methane.

This “separate form of life” would become known as the archaea, reflecting the impression that these organisms were primitive, primordial, especially old. They were single-celled creatures, simple in structure, with no cell nucleus. Through a microscope, they looked like bacteria, and they had been mistaken for bacteria by all earlier microbiologists. They lived in extreme environments, at least some of them — hot springs, salty lakes, sewage — and some had unusual metabolic habits, such as metabolizing without oxygen and, as the Times account said, producing methane.

But these archaea, these whatevers, were drastically unlike bacteria if you looked at their DNA, which is what (indirectly) Woese had done. They lacked certain bits that characterized all bacteria, and they contained other bits that shouldn’t have been present. They constituted a “third kingdom” of living creatures because they fit within neither of the existing two, the bacterial kingdom (bacteria) and the kingdom of everything else (eukarya), including animals and plants, amoebas and fungi, you and me.

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Carl Woese in his later years

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Reply The Scientist Who Scrambled Darwin's Tree of Life (Original post)
dalton99a Aug 2018 OP
Anon-C Aug 2018 #1
exboyfil Aug 2018 #2
hunter Aug 2018 #3

Response to dalton99a (Original post)

Mon Aug 13, 2018, 07:21 PM

1. Great story. I love reading about phylogenetics and this was really the discovery of most life on

Earth in fact.

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Response to dalton99a (Original post)

Mon Aug 13, 2018, 08:20 PM

2. Eukarya descended from archea

With bacterial precursors being absorbed into the cell structure to form mitochondria and chloroplasts. At least that is one hypothesis.

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Response to dalton99a (Original post)

Mon Aug 13, 2018, 11:43 PM

3. This was incredibly exciting news when it came out.

I'd just changed my major to biology and everyone was talking about it.

I had a professor who was an enthusiastic student of Lynn Margulis, and people were already making all sorts of speculations about how these organisms fit into her theories relating symbiosis and evolution.

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