Jafar's Reviews > Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life

Power, Sex, Suicide by Nick Lane
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's review
Jun 19, 2007

really liked it

This isn’t really an easy read unless you already have a good background in molecular biology. Nonetheless, it’s a very fascinating subject and the author tries painstakingly to make it easier for the reader to understand the subject. Ok, so here’s my simple summary:

Mitochondria: They used to be bacteria that lived independently. Then they formed a symbiotic relationship with another one-celled organism. The combination eventually evolved into eukaryotes (cells with nucleus). All complex life forms are made of eukaryotes. Now there are at least a few hundreds of mitochondria in each cell. Mitochondria still have kept some of their genes independent from the DNA that resides in the cell nucleus.

Power: Mitochondria are our power generators. They give us energy by pumping protons across their membrane. This, needless to say, is a very complicated and interesting process that you can read about in this book.

Sex: So why did most of complex living organisms evolve to have sexual reproduction? Why don’t we just make clones of ourselves? In addition to this – why should there be two sexes? Why not three or four or fifty? The answer again lies with how mitochondria manipulated their hosts in the early days of life. (Mitochondria genes come down the maternal line only. A female named Mitochondrial Eve is the common mother to all living humans. Through the mutation rate of the mitochondrial genes, she’s believed to have lived in Africa around 170,000 years ago.)

Suicide: We didn’t read the fine print when we signed a pact with the mitochondria two billion years ago to exchange our goodies. In the end they kill us. The process of apoptosis (cell suicide when it’s worn out) is executed by the mitochondria. Cells that act in their own selfish interest and refuse to commit suicide result in cancer. It’s a good thing that mitochondria force old cells to kill themselves, but it’s the mitochondria that wear out cells to begin with.

The Meaning of Life: Somewhere in the book Lane quotes someone that a lot of times answering the how question helps with the why question too. Instead of asking vague and dead-end questions like why we’re here, we should try to answer how we’re here. It will help with the why too (for example, if you conclude that no one created us and sent us here to accomplish a mission). Interestingly, he argues that the possibility of complex life and intelligence anywhere else in the universe is almost nil. Even if the conditions are right for simple life to evolve, it will almost certainly remain stuck in the useless bacterial form, like all the bacteria here that have remained bacteria for billions of years. The “enslavement” of mitochondria is too rare of a chance event to be expected to be repeated again.

Aging: The book has a very good discussion about aging as well. Aging is caused by the release of free radicals by the mitochondria when they’re generating power. Despite what the general population has been lead to believe by businesses, a diet high in anti-oxidant (which is replacing the low-carb diet as the new fad) is useless and irrelevant to aging. However, there’s nothing in the laws of the universe that says we should age and die. Big birds, for example, live astonishingly long and healthy lives for their metabolic rate. The solution that Lane proposes to curb aging is to manipulate the number of our mitochondria to become higher in order to have a large spare capacity and reduce the amount of free radicals.
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message 1: by Dave (last edited Aug 25, 2016 02:01PM) (new)

Dave Russell That's interesting. The Literate Urbanites as our next fiction book, will be reading After Many a Summer Dies the Swan by Aldous Huxley. It's about the search for immortality. In it a doctor theorizes the key to immortality is in our intestinal flora. People used to believe there was fountain that bestowed it. I guess this fool's errand has gotten more refined and scientific.

message 2: by Brian (new)

Brian Hodges Dawkins makes a similar statement about the statistically improbability of mitochondria forming in "The Ancestor's Tale". In fact he goes so far as to say that the formation of eukaryotic cells was probably MORE unlikely than the initial spark of life itself. While he doesn't come right out and say it, that probably means that while the universe might be teeming with bacteria, the odds of there being actual complex life, much less intelligent life out there is perhaps just this side of impossible. Humbling yet somehow inspiring. Perhaps we are truly the only "special creations" in the universe. Almost makes me want to believe in God again. :-)

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