Life from an RNA World: The Ancestor Within
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27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on September 7, 2010
Im not sure what prompted me to buy this, I think it was a recommendation for having bought Wetware. This book is about RNA and some of its complexity and properties. In this exploration, or overview perhaps, it is argued that RNA if properly considered can potentially fill in many of our gaps in understanding about the origin of life. In reading this book, I got a perspective on not only RNA but what pioneering biologists work on to build a framework for understanding the origin of life. There are a lot of computational biology ideas that seem embedded in the experiments done and ideas used. For example the book starts out with defining the differences between organisms RNA as a metric on genetic difference. In addition there are some real life genetic programming experiments that are done with putting in various combinations of nucleotides and then letting the mixtures self select the best solutions. I am a bit mixed on the book as a whole as it is supposedly written for a general audience, but there is a substantial amount of the book that requires a lot of understanding of cell biology (which I dont have) and logic chains are used with a need for very specific knowledge that the audience of this book is really not what is claimed.

The first 2/3 of the book I was able to follow more thoroughly, it is presented in short chapters about specific topics. Some of these are very understandable by a wide audience, they talk about intelligent design, plausibility of RNA's place in evolution, how to define life etc... The chapters end with specific references which allow the interested reader to explore further the topics considered. However, as one gets further through the book, the ability to follow becomes harder and harder for the non-expert. The reference become 100% journal articles which to be honest, are obviously not for general audience, and the arguments used for and agaisnt are very specific, needing a solid backgrouond in what I think is deeper than an undergraduate experience in biology.

All in all, if one is interested in cell biology and evolution and some of the complexity and properties of biologicial phenomenon, this gives a lot of food for thought. But this book is definitely mainly written for people who already know the topics the author is discussing, not for a person with casual interests in the subject. This book argues I think quite convincingly about the plausibility of RNA as the origin of selp replicating organic matter, but after reading this without a strong background, one is not in a position to truly appreciate the arguments properly.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on December 15, 2010
I bought it based on a review in Science. And also because I am a "beginning of life" nut: I own a good chunk of Stanley Miller's personal library. There were some interesting tidbits and I did learn quite a bit. However, the writer sometimes seems to forget his target audience: some chapters are so elementary that they seem written for a middle schooler, others are so technical that only a specialist can grasp them. When you use a new term: define it! The lexicon at the end is somewhat useful but not fully adequate. Also, a couple of chapters read a bit too much like an infomercial for SELEX. I am sure it is powerful, but it can't so wonderful that no mistakes are ever made and results can be taken at face value without independent corroboration. Overall, a good intro to the RNA world, but comes up short.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on December 2, 2010
Purchased this book after hearing about it in either Science or Nature. As a microbiology major, I found the book to be well-written and extremely interesting. I would, however recommend this book more to people who have prior background knowledge in microbiology as the book crams a lot of detail into small chapters, glossing over what the author assumes that the reader is familiar with. The end of chapter further reading recommendations were a nice added touch to allow the reader to further investigate topics of interest.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Pretty much everyone in the literate world has learned that DNA encodes the blueprint of every living being. Then, when people learn a little more, they hear how RNA carries DNA's message out to the working machinery of the cell. True, as far as it goes, but that hardly does justice to this remarkable molecule.

RNA acts not only as information carrier, but as mechanism as well - it can catalyze reactions all by itself, including the replication of new RNA. Yarus weaves this story without technobabble, and with reference to many of the chemical investigations into life's origins. He notes how readily RNA interacts with all the other building blocks of life, and points to believable chemical reactions that could have brought it into existence. This is all conjecture of course - only an observer at the scene could say what really happened, and no such being exists. But, despite Yarus' slight abuse of Bayes' theorem, each partial explanation of one facet of that world makes the whole idea even more credible.

Yarus notes that the laws of chemistry make mutation inevitable. Replication, competition for resources (such as nutrients), and change over time: Darwinian evolution becomes inevitable even in that world. He also keeps a tight focus on RNA's potential as the ancestor of out DNA/protein life. As a result, he skips over many of RNA's recently discovered capabilities. He also skips some of the other chemical mechanisms that could have been at work in the pre-life world, mechanisms that complement RNA's self-replication and describe other features of cellular life. Life's origin is too big a story to tell all at once, though, and Yarus does an outstanding and approachable job with this fascinating chapter of that story.

-- wiredweird
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on December 21, 2010
I just finished the book. I found the discussion of developments in RNA chemistry that
relates to abiogenesis to be interesting and informative. There is a tendency to think that
there has been no progress in the field of abiogenesis research in the past 20 or 30 years,
yet, Yarus' book definely gives a breath of fresh air on the subject.

I am not a biochemist so some of the free use of insider lingo was a bit tedious, however this
was not fatal.

We need more of these types of "fresh windows in research" for all fields of science, so that young
people can be inspired to enter science, and older people can be informed about progress in the fields.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on June 2, 2013
This is a very interesting topic and the author seems to have the credentials to explore it. His thesis is that life based on RNA was the predecessor to our DNA based life. It seems plausible based on his analysis. The author gives many examples of how RNA is indispensable for all life on Earth today.

However the technical details pile up so fast that I found myself lost or unwilling to struggle through it. It would have been better for him to give a few examples in detail with more explanation than to try to cover the whole field of RNA reactions in a short space.

Unfortunately the glossary is very limited. As an example the author uses the term "ribocyte". It shows up in the text and in a chapter title but not in the glossary. It is not in any of my dictionaries nor in the Oxford dictionary on-line. Nor could I find it in a textbook on cell biology. An Internet search finally lead me to understand that ribocyte is a cell based on RNA (ribo = RNA, cyto = cell). This shouldn't be so hard. I found myself constantly going to the glossary but rarely finding the word in question.

I think this is a book for cell biologists or at least people who have studied the subject. Too bad it wasn't made accessible to the rest of us.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on June 20, 2011
I bought this book after reading in Nick Lane's books (Oxygen /
Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life ) about the idea that the earliest life was RNA based. However this book was a bit hard to read. I commend Mr. Yarus for trying to reach out to the public, but his book is a bit dry and the metaphors fall short. I am not a biologist, but consider my self to have an above average understanding of biology and I found it hard to follow. Perhaps someone with a real background in microbiology will find it more readable, but then, such a person would probably read the original papers and not bother with a general book.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on November 13, 2011
First of all, I should state that I have read the other the comments written by the other reviewers. I strongly agree with their statements that the beginning of the book is too elementary and the end of the book too complicated.

Nonetheless, I have yet to find another book that even attempts to cover the same concepts presented in this book. No other book comes close to providing the same level of understanding of evolution to its readers as this book does. And, no other book written for the public even tries to argues that RNA probably came before DNA and that the first lifeforms may have been RNA based.
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on October 5, 2014
the chapters i've read are ok, i just got it for a class at college so...
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