Dr. Carl R. Woese, who discovered the third domain of life, passed away in December 2012

woeseDr. Carl R. Woese, one of the greatest scientists in our time, passed away on December 30, 2012 at the age of 84.

Dr. Woese is probably the greatest biologist since Darwin. He revolutionized our understanding of life by the discovery of the third domain of life – Archaea. He spent many years of laborious work in comparing the sequences of ribosomal RNAs and finally realized Archaea and Bacteria, although morphologically similar, are essentially different. He assembled the universal phylogenetic tree with three domains (Bacteria, Archaea, Eukarya). When he first reported his results in 1977, he faced sharp criticism from many other biologists, but now the phylogenetic tree is an essential content of any modern microbiology textbook. The relationship of among these three domains is of great importance to help us understand how organisms evolve from the universal ancestor. Contrary to molecular reductionism, which dissects microorganisms into parts and focuses only on specific genes, he pulled us out of the popular reductionist view of the world and pointed the direction among complex biological phenomena to answer the fundamental question: “What is life?” Although such a question is still unanswered, his creativity and wisdom has greatly helped us move closer to finding the answer. His death is a great loss to the scientific community.

I still remember sitting in his class ten years ago. He did not bring any lecture notes, and instead was just sitting in the front and talking about the theories and comments on molecular genetics. At the age of 74, he was exceptionally energetic and had no plans for retirement. Frankly speaking, I could only understand a small fraction of what he was talking about. But he was very nice to students. As long as the student in his class submits the final report, he will get an A. Earlier that year, he won the Crafoord Prize by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the same agency that also awards Nobel prizes. I heard that his work did not fit into the existing categories of Nobel prizes, so the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences acknowledged his accomplishments with the Crafoord Prize. But I guess that he didn’t care anyway, because the most joyful moment to a great scientist is to find things out, as mentioned in his own words, “in the 1970s, the golden age.”

About 2300 years ago, a great Chinese philosopher, Zhuangzi, faced the death of his wife calmly and said that life and death are like seasons and therefore we should let natural processes run their course. Although I don’t know if Dr. Woese agrees with it or not, I am sure that he has a cool altitude on the emergence and disappearance of life on earth as an evolutionary biologist. Even though he has left us, Dr. Woese’s wisdom will continue to inspire us for many future generations.

R.I.P., Dr. Woese.