The Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology’s recent symposium, "Looking in the right direction: Carl Woese and the New Biology," was conceived as a way to celebrate the renaming of the Institute in Woese’ memory. The symposium’s agenda showcased a resilient and dynamic legacy: the many areas of valuable research his work made possible.
The symposium, held September 18-20, attracted world-class scientists, friends and colleagues of Woese, and promising researchers from across the country. The six scientific sessions covered the scope of modern-day intersections between microbiology and genomics: the diversity of microbial ecosystems in the environment, and within our own bodies; the details of molecular machinery, and the evolution of the genome; the history of life’s origins, and the future of synthetic biology.
Woese, who passed away in 2012, was the first scientist to map out the evolutionary history of all life on Earth, overturning the once-accepted tree of life with his discovery of the third Domain, Archaea. His work fundamentally changed our understanding of evolutionary biology, and anticipated today’s genomic biology decades before its rise.
Penny Chisholm, the Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor of Environmental Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, gave the opening lecture, “Tiny Cells, Global Impact: A Journey of Discovery with a Microbe from the Sea.” She described her lab’s work on the ecology and evolution of phytoplankton, a microscopic organism with a global environmental impact, work Woese described as “a fresh walk in the garden of evolution.” Chisholm punctuated her talk with quotes from her 10-year long correspondence with Woese.
The symposium agenda was a full slate of stellar presentations. University of California, San Diego Professor of Computer Science and Engineering Larry Smarr, and founding director of Illinois’ National Center for Supercomputing Applications, described his work in microbial ecology in which Woese’ mentorship played a key role. University of Illinois Swanlund Professor of Physics Nigel Goldenfeld and University of Houston Professor of Biology and Biochemistry George Fox gave engaging talks on their continuation of work on the origins of life that was initially developed in collaboration with Woese.
Many of the symposium’s presentations are available online. In support of research on evolution, systems biology and ecosystem dynamics, donations may be made to the Carl R. Woese Research Fund. Dr. Woese approved this fund in his name to help the next generation of scientists and to recognize his discoveries and work that have spanned nearly half a century at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.