The beginning of the space age in the late 1950s gave rise to innovative and interdisciplinary research concepts and perspectives, including the concept of “exobiology” as a way to approach the fundamental aspects of biology through a study of life outside of the Earth, if it existed. This concept was embodied by NASA into its formal Exobiology Program and into the philosophy of the program both before and after the Viking missions that were launched to Mars to search for signs of life in 1975. Due to both management flexibility and an acceptance of the interdisciplinary nature of the problem of “life in the universe,” NASA program managers, and particularly Richard S Young who ran the Exobiology Program beginning 1967, have made some excellent investments in paradigm altering science of great use both on Earth and on future space missions. The work of Carl Woese is one such example, which has revolutionized our understanding of the microbial world and the relationships of all life on Earth.
In a series of conceptual articles published around the millennium, Carl Woese emphasized that evolution of cells is the central problem of evolutionary biology, that the three-domain ribosomal tree of life is an essential framework for reconstructing cellular evolution, and that the evolutionary dynamics of functionally distinct cellular systems are fundamentally different, with the information processing systems “crystallizing” earlier than operational systems. The advances of evolutionary genomics over the last decade vindicate major aspects of Woese’s vision. Despite the observations of pervasive horizontal gene transfer among bacteria and archaea, the ribosomal tree of life comes across as a central statistical trend in the “forest” of phylogenetic trees of individual genes, and hence, an appropriate scaffold for evolutionary reconstruction. The evolutionary stability of information processing systems, primarily translation, becomes ever more striking with the accumulation of comparative genomic data indicating that nearly all of the few universal genes encode translation system components. Woese’s view on the fundamental distinctions between the three domains of cellular life also withstand the test of comparative genomics, although his non-acceptance of symbiogenetic scenarios for the origin of eukaryotes might not. Above all, Woese’s key prediction that understanding evolution of microbes will be the core of the new evolutionary biology appears to be materializing.
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