Carl Woese and the Phylogenetic Tree


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These images represent different domains. The (a) bacteria in this micrograph belong to Domain Bacteria, while the (b) extremophiles (not visible) living in this hot vent belong to Domain Archaea. Both the (c) sunflower and (d) lion are part of Domain Eukarya. (credit a: modification of work by Drew March; credit b: modification of work by Steve Jurvetson; credit c: modification of work by Michael Arrighi; credit d: modification of work by Leszek Leszcynski)

OpenStax Biology 2e

In the past, biologists grouped living organisms into five kingdoms: animals, plants, fungi, protists, and bacteria. They based the organizational scheme mainly on physical features, as opposed to physiology, biochemistry, or molecular biology, all of which modern systematics use. American microbiologist Carl Woese’s pioneering work in the early 1970s has shown, however, that life on Earth has evolved along three lineages, now called domains—Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukarya. The first two are prokaryotic cells with microbes that lack membrane-enclosed nuclei and organelles. The third domain contains the eukaryotes and includes unicellular microorganisms (protists), together with the three remaining kingdoms (fungi, plants, and animals). Woese defined Archaea as a new domain, and this resulted in a new taxonomic tree. Many organisms belonging to the Archaea domain live under extreme conditions and are called extremophiles. To construct his tree, Woese used genetic relationships rather than similarities based on morphology (shape).

– What do you call an organism that lives in a very hot or very cold environment?

Woese constructed his tree from universally distributed comparative gene sequencing that are present in every organism, and conserved (meaning that these genes have remained essentially unchanged throughout evolution). Woese’s approach was revolutionary because comparing physical features are insufficient to differentiate between the prokaryotes that appear fairly similar in spite of their tremendous biochemical diversity and genetic variability. Comparing homologous DNA and RNA sequences provided Woese with a sensitive device that revealed the extensive variability of prokaryotes, and which justified separating the prokaryotes into two domains: bacteria and archaea.

– What process did Carl Woese do to reveal the extensive variations in prokaryotes?


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: