Evolution Scientist Carl Woese Dies: 'The Most Important Evolution Scientist of the 20th Century'

It was Carl Woese who first identified the Archaea and introduced us to horizontal gene transfer. I asked Carl Woese during my recent interview with him -- perhaps the last feature interview he gave -- how he defined life.
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digital illustration of dna...
digital illustration of dna...

Our task now is to resynthesize biology; put the organism back into its environment; connect it again to its evolutionary past; and let us feel that complex flow that is organism, evolution, and environment united. The time has come for biology to enter the nonlinear world.

-- Carl Woese, "A New Biology for a New Century," Microbiology and Molecular Biology Review

Carl Woese had no use for natural selection and yet Nature magazine endorsed Woese for the Nobel prize for his "contribution to microbiology, medicine and biology," although the Nobel committee in its conservatism has so far chosen to look the other way in recognizing his achievements. After all, it was Carl Woese who first identified the Archaea and introduced us to horizontal gene transfer. And just months before his death, he and his colleagues at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign were awarded an $8 million NASA Astrobiology Institute grant to identify the principles of the origin and evolution of life.

Woese in recent years collaborated with Nigel Goldenfeld, a relationship he considered the most productive one of his scientific career. In a paper called "Biology's Next Revolution," the two went deeper into the Darwin issue, writing:

Thus, we regard as rather regrettable the conventional concatenation of Darwin's name with evolution, because there are other modalities that must be entertained and which we regard as mandatory during the course of evolutionary time.

I asked Carl Woese during my recent interview with him -- perhaps the last feature interview he gave -- how he defined life.

"That's the problem," Woese said. "We can't."

Woese also told me that the fossil records are unreliable.

University of Illinois microbiologist and Huffington Post blogger James Shapiro, whose ideas Woese told me represent the future, emailed me saying this about Carl Woese:

Carl Woese was the most important evolution scientist of the 20th Century. He put our picture of living organisms on a solid empirical basis. He discovered a whole new kind of cell. He established the molecular methods for determining phylogenetic relationships. He made it possible to understand the relationships between prokaryotes (bacteria and archaea) and eukaryotes. Any one of these accomplishments would be extraordinary. Altogether they make Carl the most outstanding figure in understanding the diversity of life in well over a century.

Carl Woese's honors include the Crafoord Prize in Biosciences (2003), National Medal of Science (2000), Leeuwenhoek Medal (1992), MacArthur Fellow (1984), among others. He was a member of the Royal Society (2006) and the National Academy of Sciences (1988) and was the author of The Genetic Code: The Molecular Basis for Genetic Expression, and many pivotal papers.

Excerpts of my interview with Carl Woese follow.

Congratulations on the recent NASA Astrobiology Institute grant awarded to you, Nigel Goldenfeld and your colleagues to research "the fundamental principles underlying the origin and evolution of life," based on your work over these many decades about life prior to the emergence of modern cells. Why do you think NAI chose to give you and your team $8 million, since you are known as a challenger of Darwinian dogma? Is NASA finally acknowledging the Darwin approach is wrong?

Carl Woese: I would hope so, because that's very clear from our NASA Astrobiology Institute grant application. I have not seen the reviewers' comments but I've heard that they were quite positive.

It's important to mention others, on the team, aside from Nigel Goldenfeld and myself.

Members of the team include -- from UCIC: Elbert Branscomb, Isaac Cann, Lee DeVille, Bruce Fouke, Nigel Goldenfeld, Rod Mackie, Gary Olsen, Azn Luthey-Schulten, Charles Werth, Rachel Whitaker, Carl Woese; from UC-Davis: Scott Dawson; and from Baylor College of Medicine: Philip Hastings and Susan Rosenberg.

UCIC Geologist Bruce Faulke's work is going to be a large part of the outreach component of this NAI grant. Bruce works at Yellowstone Park and has a wonderful program going with those interested in the scientific side of ellowstone. He takes small groups of people up there and points out geological formations, etc. They learn a lot from this. .

Patterns of organization.

NASA is big on outreach, as you know. Both Bruce Faulke and Isaac Cann are very concerned with teaching the next generation of scientists. Isaac is an archaealogist. Archaealogist in the sense of archaea, one of the three domains of life.

I was also excited to see that you're going to put together an online course. Hopefully others will take that course as well, like media editors, etc.

Yes, I was talking just yesterday with Isaac Cann, for example, one of the principal investigators of the project who's very keen on this sort of thing. There is an online course being put together by members of the astrobiology institute here and at other facilities on this campus. It's a genuine teaching effort.

So with this grant you're going to be figuring out the general principles of life. How do you define life?

That's the problem, we can't. We have yet to answer central questions about the origin of life. We have yet to get more direct evidence for what I call a pre-Darwinian condition, a progenote condition of life. That's one of the things we're working on, trying to get as much direct evidence as we can. Obviously, since this is a stage in evolutionary space of three or more billion years ago, we're not going to get much in the way of direct evidence. We can get fossil record, but that's not reliable. You have to infer everything you can from intelligent insightful analysis of genome sequence data.

What do you consider evolution?

Evolution is actually what biology should be. What is biology? Is it some under-the-microscope description of forms? It can't be that. Evolution is a process. It is the process which we now call biology which is very static. Evolution, however, is dynamic. And we have to understand what rules that dynamic follow...

... What are some of the "principles of life" you and your colleagues are looking to confirm?

We're certainly not looking for proteins to be there in the absence of nucleic acid, I'll tell you that. If I were to tell you what principles we were looking for, there would no longer be a question. We have to try to discover the dynamic of the process of evolution, of the evolutionary process. For this the biologist needs a lot of help, particularly from mathematicians and physicists who are used to dealing with complex systems. Systems so complex they iterate by themselves.

How much are you relying on computer simulation for your work?

I'm relying on my collaborators for the computer simulation work but I'm making inclusive judgment about what they do. So there are good, productive discussions among us.

How much of NASA's interest in investigating origin of life would you say is based on creating synthetic life for commercial applications and how much knowledge-driven?

If people want to study synthetic biology, let them do it. There are many people who like it because it makes them feel all-powerful and they can patent things and make a lot of money. But that's the only thing I see in synthetic life.

But you think there is a genuine interest at NASA in getting to the bottom of the origin of life?

There's always been. In the 1970s, NASA and NIH jointly sponsored my research for The Third Domain.

Great. But that was perhaps not as upsetting to the Darwinists as the current investigation.

No. There was something new in my work and so he wanted NASA to help.

Was it a large grant?

By today's standards, it was minuscule.

Do you have any concerns about the creation of a protocell?

Oh yes. There are some, as you know, Craig Venter is beating the drum on this all the time, just to be at the forefront. Power.

There are also the Harry Lonsdale researchers, who are approaching it from the bottom up. UC- Santa Cruz origin of life scientist David Deamer, for example, says he plans to make a protocell within roughly a decade.

Good luck.

You have concerns about the protocell.

I have concerns about scientists thinking that they're God when it comes to biology. Scientists should be trying to study the experiments that nature has already done in the form of the evolutionary process...

You've also noted that Darwin's thinking on common descent is "chiefly grounded on analogy" and that the evolution now emerging is not coming from Darwin, commenting further that:

"A future biology cannot be built within the conceptual superstructures of the past. The old superstructure has to be replaced by a new one before the holistic problems of biology can emerge as biology's new mainstream."

Do you expect Darwin to go the way of Freud as "biology enters the nonlinear world" and evolution is redefined?

It could well do that. I've maintained for a long time up until the end of the 20th century that the problem of the evolutionary process is a problem before its time. Darwin was trying to get personal credit by barging in. Conceptual thought about evolution was laid down first by people like Buffon and Darwin's own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin -- whom Darwin never mentions in the Origin of Species except in a footnote when he was forced in the third edition to add it to the footer of the preface. He named him in a dismissive way. He basically said, oh yes a lot of people thought of that. And he named people like Buffon and Lamarck. But he didn't name his own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin except to say in that his grandfather had the same wrong ideas as Larmarck and Goethe. And he didn't say what they were or what his objection to them was. He wanted to distance himself from his grandfather as much as he could...

It's wonderful that you're making these breakthroughs and not encountering too much hostility from the classical biology community.

But I have not overthrown the hegemony of the culture of Darwin.

Do you have any closing thoughts?

Yes, I do not like people saying that atheism is based on science, because it's not. It's an alien invasion of science.

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