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Life from an RNA World: The Ancestor Within Hardcover – April 15, 2010

3.6 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


Mike Yarus's new book belongs on the desk of lots of people, from RNA chemists on up to the general public. I found Life from an RNA World to be a captivating book. --Niles Lehman, in Trends in Evolutionary Biology, July 2010

"not a book for science geeks..a book for science lovers..stylish, almost lyrical" --Alex Stein in the Daily Camera, October 2010

..particularly timely...a light-hearted introduction for scientifically minded readers outside the field. The author's discussion of how natural selection can lead to complexity is particularly eloquent. --Irene A. Chen, Harvard University (Science)

Yarus succeeds in explaining the remarkable nature of RNA, and how this singular molecule ties together the present and the very distant past. - Arthur G. Hunt, Reports of the NCSE, v31 (2011).

So, should you buy this book and read it? Yes -- if you have any interest in molecular evolution you will be enlivened, informed and amused. Will you get definitive proof of the RNA world? No -- as Elvis Costello said, it's 'still too soon to know' - John Sutherland, Nature Chemistry 2: 603 (2010)

Yarus captivates with skilled character development -- but here, the <&ldquo>characters<&rdquo> are the prebiotic molecules that gave rise to everything that has ever lived or is alive today on our planet.
--Thomas Cech, Distinguished Professor, University of Colorado-Boulder, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, 1989

Life from an RNA World is an unconventional book about RNA. Rather than opening with the central dogma and attendant teachings on molecular biology, Yarus uses evolution as a gateway. He then takes us on a journey through evolutionary time, concentrating on the roles of the various forms of RNA...[He] is a proficient guide.
--Tim Harris (Nature 2010-03-25)

Michael Yarus' book is a very enjoyable read, be the reader a well informed molecular biologist, or a lay person...Surely this book will highlight and increase the interest in the RNA world; raising the awareness that we are all, after all, the children of RNA.
--Michael Ladomery (Chemistry World 2010-07-01)

Although precise historical details of the particular origin of life on Earth are probably unknowable, most scientists agree that a world existed in which RNA performed the duties of both genes and enzymes. This RNA world in turn evolved into the DNA-RNA-protein world of today. Michael Yarus's Life from an RNA World offers an engaging introduction to the subject...Recent discoveries make Yarus's book particularly timely, especially as a light-hearted introduction for scientifically minded readers outside the field. His chatty prose conveys the voice of a tour guide on a journey through the RNA world, introducing essential evolutionary and molecular biology and pointing out must-not-miss attractions. Even members of the origins-of-life community may appreciate his whimsical explanations of familiar phenomena.
--Irene A. Chen (Science 2010-11-05)

About the Author

Michael Yarus is Professor Emeritus, Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, University of Colorado.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (April 15, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674050754
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674050754
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.6 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,702,873 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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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Format: Hardcover
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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By Patrick on December 2, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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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Format: Paperback
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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