The Empire Underground
Twenty-five years ago, Illinois scientist Carl Woese identified an entirely new form of life. His discovery upended the traditional notion that all living things on Earth fall into five kingdoms and challenged our understanding of evolution and the origin of life. All he had to do was persuade his fellow scientists.
Late one evening about a quarter-century ago, in a dimly lit laboratory in Urbana, Illinois, a middle-aged scientist sat crouched over a lightbox that illuminated a large sheet of translucent photographic film. Imprinted on the film were rows of dark bands representing the nucleotide sequence of genetic material that had been isolated from several microbes. The bluish glow from the lightbox filled the room, casting giant shadows on the walls and revealing the man’s face. His brow was wrinkled as he focused intently on various details of the film. He lifted his head momentarily and shook it as if in disbelief, rubbed his eyes, then looked again.
The bar code-like pattern exposed on the photographic film was the culmination of many days of tedious preparatory work. Each row represented RNA (ribonucleic acid) fragments from a different organism, and by quantifying the similarity in the location and width of the bands in each row, the scientist could gauge the genetic similarity among the organisms. This was in fact the repetition of an analysis he had performed some days earlier. He couldn’t believe the results the first time, but here they were again. He had checked and double-checked all aspects of the procedure. This was not some aberration caused by a mix-up in the chemicals he had used or the accidental switching of samples. The results, if they could be confirmed by additional tests, could mean only one thing—he had made one of the most important scientific discoveries of the 20th century: he had identified not merely a new species, but an entire new kingdom, or superkingdom, of organisms.
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