The Crafoord Prize 2003

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the Crafoord Prize in Biosciences 2003 of USD 500 000 to Carl R. Woese, University of Illinois, Urbana, Illinois, USA “for his discovery of a third domain of life”

A Third Branch on the Tree of Life

For a long time it was thought that there were merely two major domains of life: organisms that lack a cell nucleus, called the prokaryotes, and organisms whose genetic material is encapsulated in a nucleus, called the eukaryotes. Among the prokaryotes bacteria are found, and among the eukaryotes fungi, plants, animals and thus human beings. The American microbiologist Carl R. Woese made a startling discovery that forced a rewriting of the text books: he discovered a third main group, Archaea.

Archaea (previously called archebacteria) comprise unicellular organisms which are often found in extreme environments such as hot springs, waters with high salinity, extreme pH or a high sulphur content, i.e. where other organisms can’t survive. Knowledge about Archaea can provide us with a deeper understanding of the origin and evolution of life on earth.

In his pioneering work, Woese focused on ribosomal RNA (rRNA), the nucleic acid from which the ribosomes are built. The ribosomes play a central role in all living cells, since they are responsible for protein synthesis. Their unique function has entailed a slow rate of evolution, which makes their RNA-sequence a reliable marker in the study of the large-scale evolutionary patterns in the Tree of Life.

With the discovery of a third distinct domain among the life-forms, with the same diversity and evolutionary depth as the other life-forms, a major step was taken towards an understanding of the microbial world. Carl R. Woese has revolutionized our views on biodiversity.

Carl R. Woese, born in 1928 in Syracuse, New York, USA. PhD in Biophysics at Yale University, 1953. Professor in microbiology at the University of Illinois, Urbana, USA 1969. Holds the Stanley O. Ikenberry Endowed Chair at the University of Illinois since 1996.

The Crafoord Prize
Anna-Greta and Holger Crafoord’s Fund was established in 1980 to promote basic research in mathematics, astronomy, the biosciences (particularly ecology), the geosciences and polyarthritis. Both an international prize and research grants to Swedish scientists are awarded among the sciences mentioned.

Prize amount: USD 500 000. The prize will be presented by H. M. the King of Sweden on 24 September 2003.
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