Monday, December 31, 2012

Carl Woese 1928-2012

As you may have heard, Carl Woese died of pancreatic cancer yesterday at the age of 84. I had the honor of working with Carl in grad school at the University of Illinois where my advisor, Gary Olsen, ran a joint lab with Carl.

As the originator of the use of ribosomal RNA to distinguish and classify organisms (including obviously the Archaea), Carl both revolutionized evolutionary biology and created a method that is still very much in use today. Even in the latest metagenomic study of the oceans or of the human gut, a 16S rRNA diversity study is required as a control in addition to whatever additional markers or random sequencing is used.

One of the things that fascinated me about Carl is how he constantly reinvented himself and explored new fields of biology -- his early work in the 1960s dealt with classical molecular biology and the genetic code (the origins of which continued to fascinate him for the rest of his life). He then transfered to the study of the ribosome and its structure, which in turn led to his study of 16S and its evolutionary implications. In the 1990s, when I worked with him, he was a pioneeering microbial genomicist and collaborated with TIGR to sequence the first two Archaeal genomes. And in his final years he focused on early evolution and the last common ancestor of life in the light of what genomics has taught us.

Carl also had his humorous and counter-cultural side. I remember him telling me how his lab in the 1960s heard about the rumor that compounds in banana peels were a legal narcotic and how they launched an unofficial research project to isolate these. His verdict was that there was nothing there and neither the peels nor anything in them could get you high -- but he wanted to empirically test that. Also, when reading about a supposed "Qi master" who claimed to be able to influence mutation rates with his mind, he invited him to the lab to give a demonstation -- which naturally failed to show any effect under controlled conditions -- but he wanted to see if the guy could really do it.

Genomics, metagenomics, and evolutionary biology has lost one of its greats -- but his legacy lives on.