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- Publisher: Audible Studios on Brilliance Audio; Unabridged edition (March 15, 2016)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1511366540
- ISBN-13: 978-1511366540
- Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.5 x 6.8 inches
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- Average Customer Review: 200 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,439,261 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life MP3 CD – Audiobook, MP3 Audio, Unabridged
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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.
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.
Most of Lane’s argument is about how cells might have transitioned from being prokaryotes (cells without nuclei) to being eukaryotes, cells with nuclei as well as with full elaborations of mitochondria and other complex functions. Lane states that the view he presents here is still controversial and represents his interpretation of his and others’ research findings. Not all of his colleagues agree.
Be forewarned. Some of this reading gets pretty rough-going. It’s like being catapulted midterm into a college-level biology course. You’ll come across sentences such as, “Like methanogens, acetogens conserve the energy released by the reaction of H2 and CO2, as an H+ or Na+ gradient across a membrane…Like methanogens, acetogens have an ATP synthase and Ech.”
Of course, Lane has defined some of these terms beforehand, and there’s a good glossary at the end of the book. Also, he provides frequent clarifying summaries at the end of chapters and along the way. Still, this doesn’t make for easy bedside reading as he probes into the intricacies and import of proton gradients, energy conservation, electron bifurcation, and such.
There are some processes I wish he had explained in more detail, such as the exact differences in the ways the DNA of bacteria and of nucleated cells duplicate. Then occasionally, he will pull the rug out from under you. After you have done the work of mastering a lengthy technical description of a process, you will read, “Or so we thought.” So that isn’t the way it is after all? What’s more, most of the illustrations aren’t much help. They are cramped and sometimes indecipherable in this edition.
But things pick up for the general reader with the final chapters, starting with “The Power and the Glory.” Lane is good at describing the advantages of having sex and why even bacteria do it occasionally. He also provides many revealing tidbits that usually get overlooked in biology courses – such as the fact that birds are the opposite of humans when it comes to their chromosome makeup. With most avian species, it’s the females who are heterozygous, having what’s comparable to an X and a Y chromosome – while the males are homozygous. Lane also explains how the sex of offspring is often determined by ambient temperature in amphibians. He considers the how and possible whys of these interesting facts.
Overall, this is a worthwhile book, even if you are not interested in academic accounts. You can locate the summary paragraphs and get the gist of Lane’s argument. Then you can go on to those final, more philosophical last chapters which are sure to bring a spark of life to your reading.