- Hardcover: 368 pages
- Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (July 20, 2015)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0393088812
- ISBN-13: 978-0393088816
- Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.3 x 9.6 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 191 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #276,669 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life 1st Edition
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“[Nick Lane] proves an able guide through treacherous scientific terrain. He writes in lucid, accessible prose, and while the science may get dense, the reader will be rewarded with a strikingly unconventional view of biology.”
- Tim Requarth, The New York Times
“An amazing inquiry into the origins of life.”
- Bill Gates
“If I were a rich man, I would buy up the print run of this book and give a copy to every science undergraduate ahead of his or her first course in cell biology.”
- Franklin Harold, Microbe Magazine
“One of the deepest, most illuminating books about the history of life to have been published in recent years.”
- The Economist
“Masterful…. This terribly important book…is a manifesto for the future of basic biology.”
- Adam Rutherford, Observer (UK)
“He is an original researcher and thinker and a passionate and stylish populariser. His theories are ingenious, breathtaking in scope, and challenging in every sense…intellectually what Lane is proposing, if correct, will be as important as the Copernican revolution.”
- Peter Forbes, Guardian (UK)
“This is a book of vast scope and ambition, brimming with bold and important ideas…. The arguments are powerful and persuasive…an incredible, epic story.”
- Michael Le Page, New Scientist (UK)
“Comes triumphantly close to cracking the secret of why life is the way it is, to a depth that would boggle any ancient philosopher's mind.”
- Matt Ridley, The Times (UK)
“A scintillating synthesis of a new theory of life.”
- Clive Cookson, Financial Times (UK)
“In this, his third book about energy and life, [Lane] comes triumphantly close to cracking the secret of why life is the way it is, to a depth that would boggle any ancient philosopher’s mind.”
- Matt Ridley, The Sunday Times (UK)
About the Author
Nick Lane is a biochemist in the Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment at University College London, and leads the UCL Origins of Life Program. He was awarded the 2015 Biochemical Society Award for his outstanding contribution to the molecular life sciences. He is the author of Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution, which won the 2010 Royal Society Prize for Science Books, as well as Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life and Oxygen: The Molecule that Made the World.
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Lane proposes that the system by which most organisms convert energy to usable biochemicals (especially ATP) provides an important clue about how life originated. Organisms pump hydrogen ions outside of a membrane in a fashion analogous to a pump that pushes water into a water tower. Much as the flow of water out of a tower can be used to power an electric generator, organisms use this hydrogen ion gradient to produce ATP which serves as universal source of energy for cells.
Lane argues that deep-sea alkaline hydrothermal vents provided all the conditions necessary for the origin of life. These vents continuously provide hydrogen and carbon dioxide which can be combined to yield energy and organic compounds. These vents also contain metallic compounds, especially iron and sulfur containing compounds, that could serve as catalysts for the chemical reactions needed by the precursors of living organisms. Furthermore, the structures created in these vents contain pores that could serve as nurseries for the precursors of living organisms. Most importantly, boundaries in these pores permit the creation of an electrochemical gradient similar to hydrogen ion gradient that exists in living things.
Complex organisms, called eukaryotes, are much larger than bacteria and have multiple structures inside the cell, especially mitochondria and nucleus. This branch of the tree of life includes all multi-cellular organisms such as fungi, plants, and animals. The other two branches of the tree of life, bacteria and archaea, have never produced multi-cellular organisms despite their great versatility with regard to the substances they can consume and environments they can grow in. Lane describes the evidence that eukaryotes arose from a merger (symbiosis) between bacterial and archaeal organisms. He also proposes that this happened just once in Earth's history. This isn't a new theory but Lane extends it by developing hypotheses about the detailed events in this process, such as the origin of the cell nucleus.
Complex organisms have DNA in two different places, the cell nucleus and the mitochondria. The final section of Lane's book explains the consequences of this, arguing that certain attributes shared by all eukaryotes, such as senescence, and sex are logical consequences of this arrangement. This is because the actions of ordinary, nuclear, genes must be tightly matched to those of mitochondrial genes for the electrochemical gradients in the mitochondria work optimally. This has substantial consequences for human health. Lane argues, for example, that the high frequency of spontaneous miscarriages in people could be the result of occasional mismatches between nuclear and mitochondrial DNA. Another, equally provocative, example is the role of free radicals in health. He proposes that free radicals produced when mitochondria are not functioning optimally may impair health but that anti-oxidant substances such as vitamin C only make things worse by interfering with normal feedback controls.
It is difficult to say who the intended audience is because it isn't either a typical popular science book or an academic treatise. Its style is informal, all terms are carefully explained, and it has many helpful the illustrations. But a sizable fraction of the material is much more challenging than typical popular science books. Many times, I had to slow down and reread sections to make sure I understood the topic at hand. But it isn't an academic work or even a textbook; the kinds of details academic readers want, such as detailed citations, simply aren't there. It would help if you have a general familiarity with college level biology and some chemistry. Having some knowledge of biochemistry might help but it isn't necessary since Lane mostly avoids describing biochemical details.
If you can manage to give this book the careful reading it deserves, you will be amply rewarded with a fresh and intriguing view of the topics at hand.
Some of this material is covered in an entirely different way in Franklin Harold's "In Search of Cell History." If you like one of these books you will enjoy the other as well. Furthermore, comparing their different viewpoints will allow you to see the issues more clearly.
1) How did life arise on Earth? and
2) How did complex life arise on Earth?
To answer these questions Nick Lane reduced them further to one simple inquiry: what is living?
To seasoned science readers Nick Lane will be a very familiar name. That's because he wrote several biology books all of which were at least great reading including Power, Sex and Suicide, Oxygen, and Life Ascending. In Power, Sex and Suicide Nick Lane considered the humble mitochondria. In Oxygen Lane considered the various roles of oxygen in cell life and death. And finally in Life Ascending Nick Lane made a tour of evolution's ten greatest inventions in which he also detailed his thoughts on DNA.
In this book Lane draws from his earlier works, pulling them together and building on them in considering his grand question:
What is living?
To answer this question Lane considers the three main domains of life now on Earth: bacteria, archea and eukaryotes. Bacteria and archea are simple single celled creatures that differ in how their DNA replicates and also how their cell membranes are constructed. Eukaryotes combine bacteria in the form of mitchondria inside archea to create essentially super cells capable of producing 200,000 times the energy what either could produce alone.
According to fossil records archea and bacteria have inhabited Earth for the better part of four billion years. It took another two and a half billion for them to combine forces creating eukaryotes and of course much more time after that for eukaryotes to create the more visibly complex life we think of when we think of biology.
So what is living? In an exceedingly complex discussion (lay readers beware!) Lane explains that living is how protons permeate membrane structure in a way that produces energy. According to Lane this method of living is common to all life on Earth. That's why the conventional wisdom is that life on Earth had a common genesis because at root its various domains take advantage of such a similar process.
But how did that process arise? According to Lane it arose from a unique combination of readily available ingredients: 1) rock (albeit a specific type of rock), 2) liquid water and finally 3) CO2. For how these elements were combined Lane gives new science readers a new phrase...."alkaline hydrothermal venting." While even seasoned readers may not recognize Lane's phrase they will no doubt be familiar with the notion on underwater vents. The most notable of these were discovered by the deep sea submersible Alvin back in 1977 and are referred to as black smokers for the color the super heated water they vent into the ocean floor. Alkaline venting involves a similar deep sea process albeit with a specific type of rock called olivine. While a discussion of the specifics really is best left to Lane himself his thesis says that life arose when organic membranes arose that could acquire energy through proton membrane permeation.
According to Lane bacteria and archea are different because they each made a different exodus from their original alkaline vent homes. Ultimately the creation of eukaryotes and with them complicated life took so very long because it was such a very chance event.
A true believer in his thesis Lane argues that his notions of how life and complex life arose could have implications for exobiology. As he rightly points out Kepler evidence now suggests the presence of some 40 billion Earth like worlds in the Milky Way alone. Because olivine, liquid water and CO2 are rightly expected to be so common among them Lane suggests that life should be fairly common while complex life should probably be fairly rare. Again seasoned readers will be reminded of Peter Ward's great classic: Rare Earth, which suggested for other reasons that complex life should be relatively rare in the cosmos.
Whether science ultimately proves of disproves Lane of course is a matter for another day. But in the here and now interested readers will be nothing less than thrilled with this book which suggests not only so much about life on Earth but life itself.
It may sound strange (considering the technical subject and the vocabulary challenge), but this is an exciting book. So many pieces of information just astounded me, such as: The human body has 37 trillion cells.... Every cell has both a nucleus and mitochondria, and these two parts apparently got together in one cell about 1.5 billion years ago, in a freak accident.... All complex cells derive from that event. All cells derive energy from a redox reaction....In mitochondria, electrons hop from one iron-sulphur cluster to the next by quantum tunnelling...."All life on earth depends on proton gradients across membranes to drive carbon and energy metabolism." (p. 286) and so much more.
This book includes historical backgrounds of biology and biochemistry. It addresses the origin of life on earth and the complexity of the human body. It is informative but also inspiring and thought-provoking. Kudos to Nick Lane for bringing to the general public some of the recent developments in biochemistry and evolutionary genetics.