Distinguished Research Professor 2011
William Whitman, professor of microbiology, has dedicated his career to the study of free-living prokaryotes, such as bacteria and archaea. His studies have had a major impact in microbial physiology, ecology, and taxonomy but also in evolution and marine science.
His early work at UGA pioneered the use of genetics to study methanogenic archaea. His studies on autotrophic CO2 fixation provided insights into the physiology and ecology of methanogens. He helped develop criteria for the taxonomy of all prokaryotes and applied them to the methanogens, proposing the methanogen taxonomy used today, and more recently, other bacteria.
He was first author on a groundbreaking 1998 census of the number of prokaryotes on the planet, which demonstrated that their biomass was essentially equal to that of plants and animals. It remains one of the most influential papers in the field, having been cited more than 1,000 times. His research has literally shaped current views on the taxonomic relatedness of microorganisms and how we study them.