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The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life

4.17  ·  Rating details ·  3,859 ratings  ·  503 reviews
The Earth teems with life: in its oceans, forests, skies and cities. Yet there’s a black hole at the heart of biology. We do not know why complex life is the way it is, or, for that matter, how life first began. In The Vital Question, award-winning author and biochemist Nick Lane radically reframes evolutionary history, putting forward a solution to conundrums that have pu ...more
Paperback, 368 pages
Published June 21st 2016 by W. W. Norton Company (first published April 23rd 2015)
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Inna Some ideas and concepts as well as the general fascination with the mitochondria will sound familiar to a reader of "Power, Sex, Suicide", but this is…moreSome ideas and concepts as well as the general fascination with the mitochondria will sound familiar to a reader of "Power, Sex, Suicide", but this is a whole new book with new insights and ideas and little direct overlap of content with PSS. Totally worth the read.(less)
john b. snazelle Yes. A high school level of biology is necessary, an undergraduate level would be even more helpful, and some knowledge of current trends in phylogene…moreYes. A high school level of biology is necessary, an undergraduate level would be even more helpful, and some knowledge of current trends in phylogenetics, bioenergetics, and complexity theory wouldn't hurt. Also, you have to know some basic physics and chemistry because the idea of a chemiosmotic proton gradient is central to the whole book.(less)

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Brian Clegg
Apr 15, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a bravura, hit-you-between-the-eyes popular science book which, were it not for a couple of failings, would not only be five star, but quite possibly the best popular science book of the year so far.

Nick Lane succeeds on two levels. One is opening the eyes of a relatively ignorant reader on the subject of biology like me to the sheer, magnificent complexity of biological mechanisms. I was aware, for instance, of mitochondria as the power sources of eukaryotic cells, but hadn't a clue jus
Oct 11, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
I learned a lot from this book, and unlearned some old things about biology and biochemistry. Here's some notes I took about the book, to save on my computer:

0s Nick Lane: The Vital Question

1. Endosymbiosis was a one-off between an archaeon body and a bacterium that became mitochondrium. Golgi bodies may or may not have invaded later; other “subbodies” were likely produced by internal action, tho Lane doesn’t specify.
2. Archaea and bacteria didn’t diversify at black smoker vents on seafloor ridg
Until now, Nick Lane has been my favorite author. Increasingly, or at least in my estimation, he is joining the ranks of the old science guard who work hard to a) politicize science and b) make important science inaccessible to the non-scientific, but intelligent and curious, reader. If his discussion of Margulis had been half as balanced as the male scientists he discussed, who also got a few things right and a few thing very wrong, chapter one would have been tolerable. Francis Crick believed ...more
Mario the lone bookwolf
Dec 09, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 0-biology
How have physics and biochemistry been so perfectly matched in such tiny organisms?

Please note that I have put the original German text to the end of this review. Just if you might be interested.

Billions of years nothing. Then long stagnation. And then an evolutionary and complexity explosion that can only be explained with a variety of vague hypotheses. Something has enabled higher life, has given primitive life forms the impossible-seeming ability to evolve further.

The biochemist's point of vi
Jul 13, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biology
Lane asks why life arose only once on earth and why complex life also arose only once. The similarities between the cells of all living things are so great that scientists believe all have a common ancestor. Similarly eukaryotes, living things that have cells with a nucleus, mitochondria and other common attributes, also have a single common ancestor. Eukaryotes are complex life that includes everything from you to mushrooms to amoebas. The first eukaryote is believed to have been formed from an ...more
Pooja N Babu
Dec 18, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
Have you ever wondered what "life" is? Not in the philosophical complexity of how hard it is to lead one, but what actually defines life in a scientific sense. Ever tried to comprehend the complexity of living, wondered on what makes "life", what concept or part it is that makes you say an organism is alive or dead? In the general sense, if you stop breathing, you are considered dead. Okay, you breathe, you walk, you talk. But what is it that makes you breathe autonomously in the first place? If ...more
Apr 01, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction-btr
Wow this book was so interesting, it's main goal is to put forward the theory that the ability to harness energy by single cell organisms was the leap that was necessary for said organism to evolve into more complex organisms and therefore us, it explains the processes by which this could be possible attained 4 billion years ago, it argues that achieving this feat was nothing short of a miracle that it's very likely to not happen again. It also predicts that life in other planets would be simila ...more
Emma Sea
A gorgeous book, so clear and well-written. Worth reading for the description of the ATP synthase alone: I wish science writing this good had been around when I was at high school.

If you're considering reading it, basically it's about the importance of mitochondria. Lane's ideas got super fascinating in chapter 9, and if you don't currently have time to read all 305 pages of Lane's book, and you know a little about cell biology already, I rec picking up the book just to read this chapter alone.
Vicky Chijwani
Dec 08, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites, science
A compelling theory of the origin of life and its progression to complexity, built from first principles and intimately linked with energy.

I found a glowing mention of this book at the end of Bill Gates' Best Books of 2015 blogpost and immediately bought it after reading the intriguing premise. If you liked The Selfish Gene and are ready for a more challenging book, I highly recommend this one.

Prerequisites: basic understanding of cell biology and a bit of chemistry. Some familiarity with the co
Ross Blocher
Aug 03, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This is the book I've been waiting for... So many discussions theological and biological jump immediately to the conundrum of abiogenesis. It's a particularly difficult problem, with the origins of life shrouded in the ancient past, and a good deal of complexity to be conjured from natural processes alone. Enter Nick Lane, a biochemist in the Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment at University College London, leader of their Origins of Life Program. Lane tackles numerous features of ...more
Deogratias Rweyemamu
Best argument for evolution thus far

Reading this book made me feel like am back in my high school biology class. The subject matter is much more complicated but extremely meaningful in pondering the great questions of origin of complex life.

Nick Lane has managed to construct a brilliant argument that us laymen could follow and reason out. His central ideas around endosymbiosis, ATP synthesis, Redox Reactions, Chemiosmotic Hypothesis, Apoptosis and free radical leak - provide clear cut evolutiona
Feb 20, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: black
You remember that teacher you had, in junior high or high school, who was so enthusiastic about his or her topic that you found yourself enjoying the class? Even if it was in a field you had not liked up until then, the right person can have a level of excitement with a subject that is contagious. Nothing is more boring than someone who is bored, and very little is as exciting as someone who is excited about what they're trying to teach. Reading Nick Lane's book is a little like having a teacher ...more
Sreejith Puthanpurayil
Feb 13, 2019 rated it it was amazing
It took almost 2 billion years for a wet planet teeming with single-celled life to develop the first multi-celled life form. Why? This is the question that this wonderful book aims to answer and in doing so, it links thermodynamics and life, taking you to the great past to the possible origins of the very first life form. We follow its journey and see how, almost 2 billion years later, the first eukaryote was born. Then, by analyzing this ancient being we try to derive its properties (probable h ...more
This book details important concepts around cell evolution addressing the most important question of all - how did complex life evolve? There are detailed discussions around why it is difficult, how it could have happened, what constraints had to be overcome and will life fare similarly in the rest of the universe. These are important questions and make for fascinating reading.

The material is obviously top-notch and also authoritative, and while it aims to be a book which everyone can read - it
Peter (Pete) Mcloughlin
Covers the story of life from origins up to multicellular creatures with a focus on biochemistry and cell biology. Not bad. Lots of questions to be answered in this field but we are learning new things all the time.
Thomas Ray
Nick Lane, The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life, 2015, 360pp. ISBN 9780393088816

Bleeding-edge science for the general reader. Lane has plausible, partly detailed explanations for how life may have arisen from natural geochemical processes—and how complex life may have arisen from bacteria and archaea.

He has new ideas—including testable hypotheses, and is testing some of them.

The atmosphere 4.4–4 billion years ago was mainly carbon dioxide, water vapor, nitrogen
Jan 01, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
If comes to life the thinker can't avoid Schrödinger's..not his cat,but his book:What is life?By him life is the only that can defy II Law! Forty years ago,at the dawn of molecular biology, French Monod wrote his famous book "Chance and Necessity", which argues that the origin of life on earth was a freak accident.Life,as Hungarian biochemist Albert Szent-Györgyi observed,is nothing but an electron looking for a place to rest!

It was a fascinating sensation to delve into the cell biology again, a
Jun 29, 2017 rated it really liked it
If you have a solid grounding in science already, particularly biology, this is probably going to be accessible for you — but if not, you might struggle a little. It starts off alright, but it gets quite dense in places, and if you’re not super-interested, you’ll probably get bogged down. That said, to me it was fascinating, and generated testable hypotheses about how early life could have functioned.

I still disagree with Nick Lane on some points, like the dismissiveness with which he treats “ju
May 06, 2019 rated it it was amazing
“I cannot consider the organism without its environment. From a formal point of view the two maybe regarded as equivalent phases between which dynamic contact is maintained by the membranes that separate and link them.” Nick Lane’s inclusion of this 1957 quote by John Walker gives an idea of the excitement Lane brings to this book, his enthusiasm powers the reader through the current (2017) hypotheses about the origin of life. Microorganisms get their due, followed by a fascinating in depth look ...more
Jul 04, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biology, ebook
41st book for 2017.

This is definitely one of the most interesting science books I have read. Nick Lane (who comes across as a kind of genius) puts forward his ideas about how the archaea and bacteria originated and are related, how complexity started in eukaryotes, why bacteria/archaea never became complex, how the sex and death originated, and to finish throws in some speculations about where and how life will evolve in the universe.

Erik Möller
Mar 16, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Can a book be both dry and riveting? Yes, it can. Although Nick Lane does not always succeed in his ambition to do better than textbook style writing, this challenging and exhausting book rewards the reader with an up-to-date understanding of the evolved nanotechnology we call "life".

This isn't a book about cool animals, or about evolution as a whole. Lane focuses very much on life at the very small scale, such as the inner workings of mitochondria, the power houses of the cell. It's an underst
Aug 27, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, biology
Extremely interesting, and challenging read. Can you look at evolution not through the lens of (population) genetics but through the lens of biochemistry, specifically, energy. Lane starts at the "beginning" - how come the last common eukaryotic ancestor already possessed so many complicated traits? He goes to introduce an origin of life that depends on energy in the form of protein gradients, and argues that life depending on protein gradients can only evolve under very constrained circumstance ...more
May 22, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: own
An impressive book. Nick Lane has taken years of highly original research and deduction on the origins and evolution of life on Earth, the product of which is distilled into this relatively concise book. The result is challenging but enlightening.

Although admirably written for a general audience, Lane's ideas are dumbed down as little as necessary and I must admit (as someone with very little formal education in Biology or Chemistry) that I did end up feeling quite lost at times amongst the tech
Dan Graser
Jun 19, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is hugely rewarding reading and a remarkable thesis for the origin of LUCA - Last Universal Common Ancestor of all cells on Earth. His assertion that alkali vents on the sea-floor, miles from the smoker thermal vents, as the likely candidate for the first prokaryotic endosymbiosis event is a bold claim and an endlessly fascinating story, highly recommended! Lane gives a staggering amount of detail as well as an interesting narrative that incorporates the processing of energy in early lifefo ...more
Mar 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing
If you've ever wondered: Why are we here? Why are there so few aliens visiting? Why do some birds have ridiculously brightly colored feathers? Why do we age? etc. etc. This books explains why and why it can't be any other way; because we're all pumping protons and the eucaryote thing happened only once (successfully) in all the billions of years and these things have dictated sex and everything else ever since.
Mick Kelly
May 14, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
What an exciting, fascinating and absorbing book this is. At last we have a coherent account of how life could evolve and make the difficult move into multi-organ cells and multi-cellular creatures. At last we have a coherent description of what life actually is. Bravo Nick! Best science book I've read this year - make that 'last 5 years'.
Nov 28, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
This is a dense book that took me most of November to read. That said, it's quite interesting, delving deeply into biology back to the most likely origins of complex life on this planet.

Each cell in your body contains two distinct sets of DNA - one belongs to the mitochondria. This book examines both sets, how that came to be, what they are used for, and how the cell works at a fundamental level. The author also investigates defect handling, cell death, and gender development in humans and other
Lejla Ahmetagić
May 02, 2020 rated it it was amazing
As I give it 5 stars I prepare to re-read it immediately, in an attempt to preserve in memory at least some of amazing explanations it offers.
Mar 26, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Nick Lane goes on an exploratory adventure to understand the life - biologically, that is, as it has come to be. There are many familiar conjecture he arrives at that sounds plausible with the information that is available today. He makes no great leaps in theories that borderlines on miraculous thus keeping the conversation very well within the boundaries of science. Lane's hypothesis are derived out of years of observations, cross-discipline research and fundamentals of biology. It is humbling ...more
Hasanul Banna Siam
May 14, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This is a book with groundbreaking ideas and hypotheses directed forward with a view to solving some of the key questions of Biology. You will get answers to some cool questions like: Why do Eukaryotes have a nucleus but not prokaryotes? Why do Bacteria always remain bacteria? Who was LUCA? How did Life emerge on earth? How reliable is the phylogenetic tree? etc. If you are a student of Biological Science, this book is a must read for you.

This is a pure science book that heavily deals with Evolu
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Dr Nick Lane is a British biochemist and writer. He was awarded the first Provost's Venture Research Prize in the Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment at University College London, where he is now a Reader in Evolutionary Biochemistry. Dr Lane’s research deals with evolutionary biochemistry and bioenergetics, focusing on the origin of life and the evolution of complex cells. Dr Lane w ...more

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“One begins to wonder if all the most interesting problems in physics are now in biology.” 11 likes
“I shall argue that the distinction between a ‘living planet’ – one that is geologically active – and a living cell is only a matter of definition. There is no hard and fast dividing line. Geochemistry gives rise seamlessly to biochemistry. From this point of view, the fact that we can’t distinguish between geology and biology in these old rocks is fitting. Here is a living planet giving rise to life, and the two can’t be separated without splitting a continuum. Move” 3 likes
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