On November 3rd 1977

The New York Times reported that a form of life that predates higher organisms had been discovered by scientists at the University of Illinois. The discoveries that formed the basis for this report were two papers in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by a team led by Carl Woese, which included G. Fox, R. Wolfe, L. Magrum and W. Balch. These organisms came to be known, eventually, as Archaea. Remarkably, these organisms had been observed and in some cases cultured previously, but their phylogenetic significance never realized, because morphologically they resembled what we now call Bacteria; this had led to these two lineages being misclassified as Prokaryotes.


The implication of the discovery of the Archaea is that there are three domains of life. Evolutionary studies have been completely transformed by this discovery. Moreover, related techniques have led to an explosive growth of the field of microbial ecology, where culture-free methods of identification are essential for exploring communities in the wild.

During November 2007, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign held a Symposium to celebrate the 30th anniversary of this work, covering not only the Archaea and historical aspects of their discovery, but also the many ways in which the techniques leading up to and emanating from this work have transformed microbial ecology. This web site presents a permanent video record of this Symposium, bringing to life both the science and the scientists who uncovered evolution's hidden past.

Please click here to view the talks.