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

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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 puzzled generations of scientists.

For two and a half billion years, from the very origins of life, single-celled organisms such as bacteria evolved without changing their basic form. Then, on just one occasion in four billion years, they made the jump to complexity. All complex life, from mushrooms to man, shares puzzling features, such as sex, which are unknown in bacteria. How and why did this radical transformation happen?

The answer, Lane argues, lies in energy: all life on Earth lives off a voltage with the strength of a lightning bolt. Building on the pillars of evolutionary theory, Lane’s hypothesis draws on cutting-edge research into the link between energy and cell biology, in order to deliver a compelling account of evolution from the very origins of life to the emergence of multicellular organisms, while offering deep insights into our own lives and deaths.

Both rigorous and enchanting, The Vital Question provides a solution to life’s vital question: why are we as we are, and indeed, why are we here at all?

368 pages, Paperback

First published April 23, 2015

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About the author

Nick Lane

18 books787 followers
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 was a founding member of the UCL Consortium for Mitochondrial Research, and is leading the UCL Research Frontiers Origins of Life programme. He was awarded the 2011 BMC Research Award for Genetics, Genomics, Bioinformatics and Evolution, and the 2015 Biochemical Society Award for his sustained and diverse contribution to the molecular life sciences and the public understanding of science.

Nick Lane is the author of three acclaimed books on evolutionary biochemistry, which have sold more than 100,000 copies worldwide, and have been translated into 20 languages.

Nick's first book, Oxygen: The Molecule that Made the World (OUP, 2002) is a sweeping history of the relationship between life and our planet, and the paradoxical ways in which adaptations to oxygen play out in our own lives and deaths. It was selected as one of the Sunday Times Books of the Year for 2002.

His second book, Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life (OUP, 2005) is an exploration of the extraordinary effects that mitochondria have had on the evolution of complex life. It was selected as one of The Economist's Books of the Year for 2005, and shortlisted for the 2006 Royal Society Aventis Science Book Prize and the Times Higher Young Academic Author of the Year Award.

Nick's most recent book, Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution (Profile/Norton 2009) is a celebration of the inventiveness of life, and of our own ability to read the deep past to reconstruct the history of life on earth. The great inventions are: the origin of life, DNA, photosynthesis, the complex cell, sex, movement, sight, hot blood, consciousness and death. Life Ascending won the 2010 Royal Society Prize for Science Books, and was named a Book of the Year by New Scientist, Nature, the Times and the Independent, the latter describing him as “one of the most exciting science writers of our time.”

Nick's next book, due to be published in 2015 by Norton and Profile, is entitled The Vital Question. Why is life the way it is? It will attack a central problem in biology - why did complex life arise only once in four billion years, and why does all complex life share so many peculiar properties, from sex and speciation to senescence?

Nick was also a co-editor of Life in the Frozen State (CRC Press, 2004), the first major text book on cryobiology in the genomic era.

Peer-reviewed articles by Nick Lane have been published in top international journals, including Nature, Science and Cell, and he has published many features in magazines like New Scientist and Scientific American. He has appeared regularly on TV and radio, and speaks in schools and at literary and science festivals. He also worked for several years in the pharmaceutical industry, ultimately as Strategic Director of Medi Cine, a medical multimedia company based in London, where he was responsible for developing interactive approaches to medical education.

Nick is married to Dr Ana Hidalgo-Simon and lives in London with their two young sons, Eneko and Hugo. He spent many years clinging to rock faces in search of fossils and thrills, but his practical interest in palaeontology is rarely rewarded with more than a devil’s toenail. When not climbing, writing or hunting for wild campsites, he can occasionally be found playing the fiddle in London pubs with the Celtic ensemble Probably Not, or exploring Romanesque churches.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 645 reviews
Profile Image for Brian Clegg.
Author 206 books2,651 followers
April 15, 2015
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 just how complex the molecular machines that function across their boundary to the wider cell and inside each mitochondrion were. It is truly mind boggling and wonderful. At one point, Lane comments with raised virtual eyebrows on the number of physicists now working in biology - but that's not at all surprising when it becomes plain how much of what goes on is down to pure physics, whether it's pumping protons, passing electrical charges or quantum tunnelling. Lane does resort to the odd exclamation mark, normally frowned on by writers, but for once it seems entirely justified.

The other impressive aspect of the book might be less familiar even to some biologists when Lane explores the origins of life - no longer from an organic 'soup', but now thought to be primarily from water and carbon dioxide - how the energy requirements of life can sometimes tell us more than genetics about the way living cells turned out, how our complex cells seem to have developed initially from the embedding of bacteria into another prokaryotes, this time archaea. And that's just the start in a complex ride that involves changing membranes from one kind to another, the spontaneous formation of a nucleus, the changing nature of DNA and far more. It even explains why practically all eukaryotes like us have sexual reproduction. Perhaps most surprising is that the earliest common ancestor of eukaryotes seems to have already had most of these complex mechanisms and structures, for reasons that again Lane makes very plausible. It's fascinating and really changes the idea of how various kinds of living cells may have come into being.

So what's the downside? The writing is rather repetitious. It's amusing that early on Lane refers to this as a short book, saying that it is as short as it could possibly be to get the point across. But it is, in fact, a middle-sized book that could have been significantly more short and to the point with some of the repetition, particularly in the first few chapters, taken out.

More significantly, I think the book suffers from Feynman's ague - when the great American physicist was involved in biology he bemoaned the vast quantity of labels that had to be learned to get anywhere and I found there were plenty of pages where I didn't really understand what Lane was talking about because I had either never come across, or had already forgotten the explanation of yet another tedious term. The book really could have benefited from a co-author who wasn't a biologist to say 'you've lost me' ever few pages (or in some cases every few lines). I got the overall gist, but I felt I was missing out on some of the finer points and did skip a few pages where it was all getting too much for me.

Despite those misgivings, though, there is so much to discover in this book. I would recommend it for either of my two reasons for liking it alone - but taken together they make a potent package that will truly bring out the sense of wonder as only good science can.
Profile Image for Socraticgadfly.
1,044 reviews336 followers
October 12, 2015
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 ridges, but rather at warm, yet cooler, and gentler-venting alkali vents about 10-30 miles away, which, with multiple holes, provided a “membrane” for proton pumping along with alkali gradient vs. acidic seawater for reduction potential gradients for CO2 to reduce to formic, then to methanol, but stopping before methane, which isn’t desired
3. It made evolutionary sense for nucleus to uptake most mitochondrial genes
4. Multicellular eukaryotes can either tolerate high levels of mitochondria vs nuclear gene defect rates and more adaptability, in exchange for short lives, (rats) or low tolerance and low birth rates, and low adaptability, in exchange for maintaining a high evolved fitness (birds, esp, which need high-performance mitochondria)
5. High mitochondrial defect rates affect neurons and muscles above all, hence human neuromuscular disease, and per germ cells, hence their hitting men more. Muscles and nerves have the highest metabolic rate, and we can’t replace out nerve cells, overall, in developed adults
6. A modified version of the old “free radical theory” might be true … while rejecting the idea that antioxidants can help (they can actually hurt, and not testing in body, rather than in lab, is how the original theory went wrong)
7. Cellular free-radical links aren’t bad, they’re signals
8. Mito-nuclear variants that affect ATP efficiency are linked to apoptosis, and seem to serve to signal it; apoptosis probably evolved early
9. Mito defects are probably related to many early-pregnancy spontaneous abortions. (He says that 40 percent of all ends this way, even higher than Ayala’s guess)
10. Per reptiles and SRY defect in mammals, he thinks temperature of development is key for sex differentiation, to the point he thinks that if what’s left of the Y chromosome finishes disintegration, mammals would find another temp-based way to distinguish sexes
11. Re SETI, he says that the chemiosmotic nature of life on earth will probably be found elsewhere if we find life elsewhere
12. “Energy is less forgiving than genes”

Throughout, he specifies when he is being speculative. Within that, he notes what speculative items are testable. He then subnotes which of these he or his students are already testing, or others he knows of are already testing.

Profile Image for Charlene.
875 reviews524 followers
March 30, 2016
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 that DNA was put in cells by aliens (all that LSD he took:); and yet, not a mention of that by Lane in an attempt to discredit the whole of his work. When discussing the Miller - Urey experiment, Lane merely glosses over the fact that it doesn't jive with the most important law known to humans, thermodynamics. If he treated them like Margulis, he would have gone after them on a much more personal level.

Luckily for me, I was a science major. As such, I am lucky enough to appreciate the incredible work in this book. Lane reminds me of Newton, who when writing the Principia,made damn sure the lowly undeserving commoner could never have access to his ideas.

I much prefer authors, like physicist Sean Carroll or Paul Falkowski, who work hard to break down complicated information and package it for public consumption. However, if you are already extremely familiar with biochem, membrane bioenergetics, thermodynamics, and the like, this book, which reflects sheer brilliance, is for you. I remember reading Lane's paper on membrane bioenergetics. I was in love with every word of it. It took me 4 days to really pour over it. The RNA world and primordial soup hypotheses are missing important components because they cannot account for the energy required for replication. Lane's origin of life argument, which involves a natural energy source at deep ocean vents that acts just like a cell does when it makes ATP, is extremely compelling. Any hypothesis that doesn't take into account thermodynamics and required energy is doomed to fail. Both RNA world and primordial soup fail to hold up. Even if Lane's hypothesis turns out to be incorrect, it taught us that we *must* meet the requirements of thermodynamics and keep focused on energy needs and constraints in order to understand how life began. Any correct theory must provide an answer to how enough energy can be generated so that cells can replicate. Lane's hypothesis is simply the best candidate. If the vents were not the energy source, something was. If it's not the vents, it is likely something that works in a similar manner.

Despite the elitist tone of the book, this is the type of theory that shifts paradigms. It is, without question, a seminal work. I read one review that suggested Lane merely regurgitated what the reviewer had already learned in their science courses at university. I cannot imagine how that is even possible considering the novel nature of the work.

Absolutely worth reading if you can get through it.
Profile Image for Andrej Karpathy.
110 reviews3,649 followers
December 21, 2021
Easily one of my favorite books ever - Nick Lane is an excellent scientist author, mixing engaging presentation, highly intriguing ideas, and tons of technical details. I learned a lot about origins of life and unlocked a whole new level of appreciation of the fantastic cosmic story every one of us is a part of, with all of the happy accidents along the way.
Profile Image for Mario the lone bookwolf.
805 reviews3,849 followers
December 10, 2018
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 view puts Lane in an exciting position. He can also describe the physics behind the evolution of life at all stages of development. This extends the astonishment beyond purely biological processes to natural science in and around the living beings. How it developed from "catching" the right atoms and looking for and choosing the right source of energy to the more complex microorganisms is a science thriller.

What emerges is the nature made fusion of physics and biology, hard science and life sciences. It can be estimated when and how, but the why, on the other hand, is still a lot more complicated. Some milestones are the most significant.
It took 2 billion years for eukaryotic cells to form. As a result of endosymbiosis, procaryotes were able to absorb bacterial cells and thus generate an excess of energy. Switching from lateral gene transfer to sex was another milestone. This brought with it several genders, but also the indispensability of the ineluctable death of a unique individual.

There is no lack of hypotheses. Panspermia, a deliberate uplifting by unknown instances, pure coincidence or influences by unknown forces. Even the most obvious assumption that all life has arisen on earth alone and without help. How did it come to the respective breakthroughs and evolutionary thrusts after eons of stagnation? These seem to end in a similar dilemma as the parable of the hen and the egg. How could something previously unprecedented happen by itself and then reproduce? Or DNA arise by itself? A self-modifying and replicating program that, like a machine, always creates new variants of itself.

Given the sophisticated functional mechanisms of nature, each engineer is awestruck. Complex networks of trillion single elements, communicating with one another, in right proportions and perfect timing. Proton pumps, quantum entanglement and quantum tunnels and the generation and use of electricity for bodily functions and data transmission. The possibilities of using these little-explored mechanisms for technical applications are manifold.

As an edifice of ideas it could seem like a fusion of biotechnology and nanotechnology. Only this combination enabled the microorganisms to implement actual technical functionalities in living bodies through the manipulation of thermodynamics. The applications that humans will be able to develop in the future with a better understanding of these processes are limitless. In the best case, a symbiosis of natural development in all life forms is accompanied by their optimization with the technical possibilities. Or the other way around. With as (little) misappropriation and abuse of this powers as possible.

Without at least rudimentary knowledge this work is a guarantor for frustration. With a parallel open search engine to explain some specialist terminology, however, one dives into the history of life from new perspectives. Some passages, which are not so crucial for the overall context, can be safely overlooked.

Wie wurde die Physik und Biochemie in so winzigen Organismen derart perfekt aufeinander abgestimmt?

Milliarden Jahre nichts. Dann lange Stagnation. Und dann eine Evolutions- und Komplexitätsexplosion, die sich nur mit verschiedensten, vagen Hypothesen erklären lässt. Irgendetwas hat höheres Leben ermöglicht, hat primitiven Lebensformen die unmöglich anmutende Fähigkeit verliehen, immer weiter zu evolvieren.

Der Standpunkt des Biochemikers erhebt Lane in eine interessante Position. Er kann auch die Physik hinter der Evolution von Leben in allen Entwicklungsstufen beschreiben. Das erweitert das Staunen über die rein biologischen Prozesse hinaus zu der Naturwissenschaft in und um die Lebewesen. Wie es etwa alleine vom "Fangen" der richtigen Atome und suchen und wählen der richtigen Energiequelle bis zu den komplexeren Kleinstlebewesen kam, ist ein Wissenschaftsthriller.

Was dabei zu Tage tritt, ist die von selbst entstandene Fusion von Physik und Biologie, von harten Naturwissenschaften und Lebenswissenschaften. Dabei kann man wann und wie mittlerweile recht gut abschätzen. Das warum hingegen ist noch ungemein komplexer. Einige Meilensteine sind dabei am bedeutendsten.
Es dauerte 2 Milliarden Jahre, bis sich eukaryotische Zellen bildeten. Indem Prokarioten durch Endoysymbiose Bakterienzellen in sich aufnahmen und damit einen Energieüberschuss erzeugen konnten. Der Wechsel von lateralem Gentransfer zu Sex war ein weiterer Meilenstein. Das brachte mehrere Geschlechter, aber auch die Unabdingbarkeit des endgültigen Todes eines einzigartigen Individuums, mit sich.

An Hypothesen mangelt es nicht. Panspermie, ein gezieltes Upliften durch unbekannte Instanzen, reiner Zufall oder eine Einwirkung durch unbekannte Kräfte. Selbst wenn man von der lapidarsten Annahme ausgeht, dass alles Leben alleine auf der Erde entstanden ist. Wie kam es dann nach Äonen zu den jeweiligen Durchbrüchen und Evolutionsschüben. Diese scheinen in einem ähnlichen Dilemma wie das Gleichnis von der Henne und dem Ei zu münden. Wie könnte etwas vorher nie Dagewesenes von selbst entstehen und sich dann reproduzieren? Oder DNA von selbst entstehen? Ein sich selbst modifizierendes und replizierendes Programm, das wie eine Maschine immer neue Varianten von sich selbst herstellt.

Angesichts der ausgefeilten Funktionsmechanismen der Natur erstarrt jeder Ingenieur in Ehrfurcht. Komplexe Netzwerke aus Billionen, miteinander kommunizierenden, in richtiger Zahl vorhandenen Einzelbestandteilen. Protonenpumpen, Quantenverschränkung und Quantentunnel und die Erzeugung und Nutzung von Elektrizität für Körperfunktionen und Kommunikation. Die Nutzungsmöglichkeiten dieser noch wenig erforschten Mechanismen für technische Anwendungen sind vielfältig.

Ein Gedankengebäude wäre, das es wie eine Fusion von Bio- und Nanotechnologie anmutet. Erst diese Kombination befähigte die Kleinstlebewesen dazu, durch die Manipulation der Thermodynamik eigentliche technische Funktionsweisen in biologische Körper zu implementieren. Die Anwendungen, die der Mensch in Zukunft bei besserem Verständnis dieser Prozesse wird entwickeln können, sind grenzenlos. Wobei im günstigsten Fall eine Symbiose der natürlichen Entwicklung in allen Lebensformen mit deren Optimierung durch die technischen Möglichkeiten einher geht. Oder umgekehrt. Hauptsache, (wenig) Missbrauch und Zweckentfremdung.

Ohne zumindest rudimentäres Vorwissen ist dieses Werk ein Garant für Frustration. Mit parallel geöffneter Suchmaschine zur Erklärung mancher Fachtermini hingegen taucht man aus neuen Blickwinkeln in die Geschichte des Lebens ein. Manche, für den Gesamtkontext nicht so wichtige und zu spezifische Passagen, können aber getrost überlesen werden.

Profile Image for Max.
347 reviews335 followers
July 13, 2019
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 endosymbiotic relationship between a bacteria and an archaea. The bacteria became what we know as mitochondria. Lane believes the answer to why bacteria and eukaryotes only arose once goes beyond nature and nurture (genetics and the environment). He believes structural limitations were so difficult to overcome that each event only happened once.

All life has common cellular structures and uses common processes to generate energy. Cellular respiration operates through redox reactions. We oxidize food to free electrons. Some bacteria use hydrogen sulfide gas or just hydrogen molecules to supply electrons. Photosynthesis uses the sun to free electrons. In all cases the electrons are directed down a respiratory channel attracted to oxygen or other receiving molecule and constrained by enzymes along the way. During this journey the electrons are used to pull protons across a membrane creating a strong electrical charge differential. That charge powers the enzyme ATP synthase that creates ATP. ATP then carries the energy to where it is needed in the cell. Lane supplies the details outlining the remarkable complexity of the protein machinery that pumps protons and produces ATP. This respiration complex is an all eukaryotes, bacteria and archaea, in every living cell. That means it must have been in the last common ancestor of all life we know today.

The scale of cellular respiration is mind boggling. A human body averages 40 trillion cells which hold one quadrillion mitochondria. The mitochondria contain the energy producing protein machinery. In a single human, adding all the mitochondria together, the folded inner membrane that forms the proton gradient has the total surface area of four football fields. Across this surface area the membranes pump 10^21 protons (equal to the number of stars in the universe) every second. You’ve got a lot going on!

Lane believes this ability to create free energy is the key to the origin of life. The respiration process along with a steady supply of carbon, catalysts to speed up reactions, some type of cell wall, a way to get rid of waste, and RNA or DNA or a functional equivalent gets life started. After explaining why some commonly proposed scenarios lack the necessary ingredients for life’s origins, Lane settles on deep-sea alkaline hydrothermal vents, not to be confused with black smoker vents. The water in hydrothermal vents is warm not prohibitively hot like black smoker vents. Hydrothermal vents are stable and can last 100,000 years while back smoker vents crumble after decades. Hydrothermal vents at the time life formed delivered a steady flow of carbon and hydrogen. These vents have a labyrinth of natural channels that concentrate reactants over inorganic catalysts. Today hydrothermal vents cannot spawn new life: First because existing life is consuming some of the necessary ingredients. Second because oxygen in the water precludes the formation of iron sulfide and hydroxide catalysts. Before the great oxygenation event that would not have been a problem. Third they deliver insufficient carbon today. Four billion years ago oceans contained vastly more carbon. Lane believes the conditions would have been right for a reaction between hydrogen molecules and carbon dioxide to produce methane. Today methanogens do just that to supply their energy needs. However Lane acknowledges that his theory is not without credible critics and he is testing the scenario in his lab where he can recreate an environment similar to the one he believes existed four billion years ago.

Lane delves deeply into how life might have formed in alkaline hydrothermal vents. He starts by looking at the bacteria and archaea living today in the vents. They fix carbon and produce energy from hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Lane believes this was also true of their last universal common ancestor, LUCA. According to Lane, life starts in the pores of the vent where inorganic proton gradients containing catalytic iron-sulfur minerals produce organic molecules and polymers. Eventually lipid membranes replace the inorganic gradient in protocells that form from the interaction of the organic molecules. The lipid membrane enables carbon and energy metabolism. These reactions are forced by the need to reach equilibrium between the alkaline hydrogen rich vent water and the acidic metal rich ocean. Proteins and nascent genes develop through natural selection to form essential protein structures such as ATP synthase, ribosomes and RNA or similar genetic code. This all takes place in the vent pores. Lane goes well beyond this sparse description with many pages of explanations and detailed chemistry. He doesn’t use difficult formulas, but the many possible reactions he describes to support his thesis become overwhelming, at least to this reader.

Over the last four billion years bacteria and archaea have changed little despite the dramatic changes in the earth’s environment. To produce complex life took the creation of the eukaryote around 2 billion years ago. Lane accepts the endosymbiosis hypothesis that the eukaryote arose from an archaea engulfing a bacterium which over time became a mitochondria. A reason bacteria may have not become more complex is because of structural restrictions on their energy output. As size increases cell volume is cubed and cell surface area is squared. In bacteria the proton gradient membrane runs close to the cell surface limiting their ability to support increased volume. Eukaryotes use multiple even thousands of mitochondria per cell each with folded membranes. Eukaryotes centralize most of their DNA in the nucleus with minimal DNA required for energy production staying in the mitochondria. This minimal genome makes forming new mitochondria very efficient. Having the relevant DNA close to the action rather than in the cell nucleus also makes them more efficient energy producers and more responsive to changing conditions. The large number of mitochondria and their superior structure support the much larger size and complexity of the eukaryotic cell. As bacteria increase in size they place full copies of their DNA along the surface membrane. This makes cell division take longer, a real disadvantage in bacteria which are always competing with other bacteria. Thus bacteria are naturally selected for small size.

How did the first eukaryotes go on to develop the nucleus, their flexible cellular skeleton, a plethora of internal membranes and structures, and most significantly sex and death? There are no halfway survivors between simple bacteria and complex eukaryotes. Lane posits that it was all Darwinian natural selection following the one off endosymbiotic event. The nucleus formed to control the conflict between the archaea’s DNA and that of the bacteria it engulfed. Bacteria commonly transfer their DNA material to each other so the archaea would have taken it in and incorporated it into its DNA. Only the DNA absolutely necessary was left in the mitochondria maximizing efficiency. The process was evolutionary.

Sex similarly was an early development in eukaryotes. While bacteria engage in lateral gene transfer, meiotic cell division and the fusion of two haploid gametes, one from each parent, into a zygote was entirely new. Sex mixes individual genes to form a wide array of different gene combinations or alleles in a population. Thus it allows natural selection to operate at a much finer level as opposed to favoring or disfavoring an entire chromosome or genome that is passed down intact or with mutations. Mitochondria genes come from only one parent in almost all multicellular organisms, the female in humans. Active animals in particular have high energy needs and their cells have hundreds or thousands of mitochondria and more mutations. Two different mitochondrial genomes can make alignment with the nuclear genome more difficult degrading their function. Mitochondrial disease can develop when the mitochondrial genes don’t work well with those in the nucleus. These genomic mismatches limit interbreeding between closely related different species and even long separated populations of the same species.

Since mitochondria in active animals build up mutations more rapidly, female germ cells are produced early in life and sequestered with the mitochondria turned off. This is not true in animals with undifferentiated tissues which form germ cells throughout their body such as sponges. They can regenerate a whole new individual from any segment. Lane discusses in great detail how the need to preserve mitochondria health led to our sexual differences. He concludes “the inheritance of mitochondria can account for most of the real physical differences between the two sexes.”

The higher mutation rate of mitochondria genes led to an immortal germ cell line and a mortal body. Germ cells are always young and can keep on dividing forever. The rest of the body becomes disposable. Once germ cells are sequestered complex animal tissues can differentiate to enable their specialized functions but these tissues lose the ability to reproduce. Death and aging join sex as a consequence of mitochondria and the endosymbiotic beginning two billion years ago of eukaryotes. Mitochondria are only one of a number of important parts of a eukaryotic cell. Lane however concludes “But that is not the view from evolution. The view from evolution sees mitochondria as equal partners in the origin of complex life All eukaryotic traits – all cell physiology – evolved in ensuing the tug of war between these two partners.“

The structure of the respiration machinery in mitochondria is finely tuned yet it is built by two different genomes. Some of the many proteins, each built from hundreds of amino acids, that comprise these extremely complex machines are products of the genes in the mitochondria and others are products of the genes in the nucleus. Yet they have to fit and work together precisely. If they don’t, electron flow is impeded reducing the efficiency of energy production. If electron flow is impeded enough, free radicals form. If too many free radicals are produced the proton gradient membrane loses its potential. When that happens, cell apoptosis is triggered. This scenario is true for all eukaryotes. The organism is in essence selecting out cells with mismatched genomes. If an organism is pervaded with poorly functioning mitochondria, disease results often affecting areas with the highest metabolic rate such as the brain and muscles. Unfortunately mutations build up over time in the mitochondrial genes which increases incompatibility with genes in the nucleus. Thus mitochondrial function typically declines with age and that decline accelerates in our senior years. If the cells don’t self-destruct they may become senescent stressing the tissues they are in. Unfortunately Lane doesn’t believe taking lots of antioxidants will help since they are unlikely to get into the cell and if they did they would interfere with normal energy production. Lane concludes “if life is nothing but an electron looking for a place to rest, death is nothing but that electron come to rest.”

This is an excellent but very demanding book. The depth of Lane’s explanations seemed a bit uneven. Some concepts that I considered easy he explained at length. Others that I found difficult he seemed to skim over. Perhaps this reflects my own limitations given the density and detail of his presentation. Still I learned a great deal, particularly from his supporting arguments. Just his description of the complexity of cell physiology and cellular respiration left me amazed. His explanation of the dynamics of two different genomes building proteins that interact intricately in the respiration complex was eye opening with significant implications for evolution, aging and human health. I benefited greatly from having read another of Lane’s books, Power, Sex and Suicide, before this one. It is not a light read but I felt it was more accessible than this one. I recommend checking it out if this one interests you.
Profile Image for Pooja N Babu.
30 reviews30 followers
July 7, 2016
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 you have ever thought in these lines and are amazed by life on earth, this is the perfect book to seek out answers for all the aforementioned nagging questions.

The book starts with when the life is believed to have come into existence in the first place. The Precambrian explosion where the first life form arose 3.5 to 4 billion years back. These were bacteria and archaea which monopolized for a whopping ~2 billion years! Then, the earth's atmosphere only comprised of carbon, nitrogen, sulphur and iron. Then there was The Great Oxidation Event which led to that rare event - endosymbioses between a bacteria and an archaea - that the complex life, a eukaryote, as we see now arose, the endosymbiont turning out to be the mitochondria in our cells. Scientists have still not been able to reason out for this rare event, but have enormous evidence to prove that this was pivotal for complex life to flourish.

The author, Nick Lane, also beautifully explains the "concept of life". Our life narrows down to the interplay between energy and entropy. What he calls the shopping list of life - a continuous flux of carbon and energy, the concoction of mineral catalysts in a compartmentalized system - present in a conducive atmosphere in hydrothermal vents is supposed to have formed life. Again, 'life' as an autonomous system is that always tends to increase the entropy of the system which increases the free energy available in the surroundings which is in turn consumed by organism to produce the energy currencies called ATP in mitochondria through respiration! Whoa!

The book also talks about what constraints on the modern eukaryote led to the proliferation of complex life. The probability of a eukaryotic cell formed from the rarest of a rare event to turn out to modern humans or plants (yes, plants and we share a common ancestor :) ) is very low. But, the conditions on earth was too good to be ignored, giving rise to mutations and speciation by natural selection. The author also mathematically proves why it was feasible for a eukaryotic cell to evolve giving rise to a myriad kinds of species than having a monopoly of prokaryotes.

Then comes the part where the author talks about how 'sex' arose, why are there only 2 sexes and the evolutionary benefit of having so. He gives a probable explanation for why scientists say the life anywhere else in the universe is hard to exist. The conditions are just very strict and events being as improbable as it might seem. Even if they do, he says it must be of the way as we have on earth as endosymbioses by the process of chemiosmosis is universal in cosmic terms.

The author has laid out his theories of six years of research and argues why they might be true compared to all the theories we already know. He also openly accepts why his theories can be false or haven't yet been proved with enough evidence. The love for the subject and his work is clearly reflected in his writing.
The book with all the scientific details can be tantalizing and hard to comprehend. I literally had to read almost every paragraph twice to understand the science behind his explanations. That can cause a bit of a detour, but I guess all that can be compensated when you realize how amazingly complex and magical life on earth is whilst reading those details!

I highly recommend this book to all science fans, especially for those who are interested in the so called BIG questions of life. I felt reading the book, being awestruck at every page, repeatedly reading most parts to comprehend the details, was all worth my time.

To have been evolved as an intelligent species as "homo sapiens" who have thrived since 200,000 thousand years with renaissance, industrial revolutions, agriculture, and all the scientific explorations over the past 500 years, we are a product of a slow, meticulous and intricate design of evolution, who are just the new guests to our planet which is 4.5 billion years old! We just got very lucky! :)

1. This book was recommended as the Best Science Book of 2015 by Bill Gates. Read his review here - https://www.gatesnotes.com/Books/The-...

2. Brief videos on the book by the awesome Joe Hanson in his Youtube channel "It's okay to be smart" can be found here
Profile Image for Carlos.
617 reviews291 followers
August 31, 2016
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 similar to earth life at least in the molecular level , which it goes to explain we share with almost all organisms here on earth since complex life evolved from one single cell organism that achieved the ability to harness energy (ribosomes) , the ability to keep them in (double membrane ) and the motor to generate that energy (mitochondria) and therefore was able to escape the fate of single cell bacteria. I only give 4 stars to this book because this is not for the beginner , this is a very complex and technical albeit very informative book.
Profile Image for Emma Sea.
2,190 reviews1,077 followers
July 22, 2016
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. And if you don't have time for a single chapter, at the very climax of the book is a brief discussion of the deep sea 'parakaryote' discovered in 2010, which really encapsulates his key takeaway points on endosymbionts and the evolution of complex cells, and there's a very short excerpt from the book just on this topic here, which you really shouldn't miss.

This was my first book by Lane, but it won't be my last.
Profile Image for Vicky Chijwani.
53 reviews103 followers
March 1, 2017
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 concept of entropy helps but is not required.

Things I really liked about this book:

- Careful chains of reasoning from first principles of thermodynamics, which is rare in biology, supported by numerous real-world examples and ingenious observations, without resorting to blanket pronouncements of truth. Nick Lane seems to be acutely aware of human failings and himself says his theories and ideas may not be correct, which is refreshing after reading all the popular science authors that exude unfailing (i.e., probably misplaced) confidence in their own ideas.

- Specific, testable predictions on the basis of the theories.

- Frank admittance of mistakes committed, theories proven wrong, and the fact that they will continue to be. Like he says, beautiful theories can get killed by ugly facts. The facts care nothing for our desires.

I found myself highlighting several paragraphs every chapter (which I don't do often—other books in my "copious highlights" category include On Intelligence and Thinking, Fast and Slow). EDIT 03/2017: I just found out Goodreads now stores my Kindle highlights, which is awesome! Check 'em out here.

What I didn't like about this book:

- Reasoning in every chapter is repeated several times and got somewhat boring towards the end. However this is a minor quibble and often saved me the greater tedium of going back to re-read the material. Sometimes the subtle re-phrasing of an explanation even helped me grasp the logic.

- Some unfamiliar technical terms weren't explicitly explained (even though I'd heard the word "germline" I didn't know what it meant, had to look it up).

All considered, this is an excellent popular science book. In my mind it's right up there with The Selfish Gene, though it requires more beforehand knowledge. Don't miss it!
Profile Image for Ross Blocher.
431 reviews1,388 followers
August 3, 2017
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 life in turn, framing the conversation in terms of energy flow and pulling from his own original research as well as that of his colleagues.

Various popularly proposed locations for the origin of life are presented and shot down - Lane carefully lays out the case for alkaline hydrothermal vents, which have just the right mix of materials, constant and gentle energy flow, and microscopic pores with pH differentials that can establish a flow of electrons and protons. Next he tackles the creation of organic building blocks for life, early cells, and all the other pieces needed to get us to a living cell - all in such a way that the 2nd law of thermodynamics is respected, with atoms seeking their highest-entropy states (and explaining why increased complexity is part of that process).

Lane then tackles the riddle of the two types of prokaryotic cells: bacteria and the confusingly-named archaea; which features they share (such as ATP energy-generation hardware) and why other features (such as cell walls) evolved distinctly. This sets up the bigger problem of why it took so long (some 2 billion years) for the larger and massively more complex eukaryotic cells to form, and why there seem to be no antecedent versions of them extant. Hint: the endosymbiont adoption of a bacterial cell by an archaean that became mitochondria was the important step that allowed eukaryotic cells to generate enough power to grow beyond the prokaryotic size constraints. Next he takes on the transition from lateral gene transfer to sex, the need for multiple sexes, and everything from germ lines to programmed cell death. All explained on the molecular level.

Goodness, I see I am lapsing into terms that would have stymied my comprehension from the very start, and this gives me some sympathy for Nick Lane. He's a gifted writer who often has fun with his phrasing, but he is tackling a truly complicated subject and the writing is accordingly complex. Go figure: the subtitle of the book is "Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life". While he does an admiral job of explaining terms, there are so many of them and they are so quickly thrown about that this makes for exceedingly slow reading. I found myself re-reading many passages, and flipping back and forth between the various illustrations, side boxes, footnotes, glossary and the internet to pull concepts together.

This is an important book for anyone interested in the origins of life and complexity - truly THE vital question. If you're not already well-versed in chemistry and biology, this one will have a steep learning curve, but it's rewarding and covers an impressive amount of ground. Lane very carefully lays out what we know for sure and why, what we don't know yet, and points to future research that can further enhance our collective knowledge of life's origins.
Profile Image for Thomas Ray.
1,093 reviews347 followers
December 13, 2018
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, sulfur dioxide—oxidized volcanic gases.

Conditions for new life:

Alkaline hydrothermal vents in mildly acidic, metal-rich sea: thermal currents of carbon- and energy-rich fluids through microporous semiconducting iron-sulfur catalytic rock, proton gradients form across thin walls. Proton gradient drives formation of methyl thioacetate and acetyl phosphate; carbon and energy metabolism; ‘dehydrate’ to form polymers including nucleic acids and proteins. (pp. 135, 148) Organics accumulate. Vents persist at least 100,000 years, 10^17 microseconds (pp. 110–120). Organics interact; fatty acids precipitate into vesicles; amino acids and nucleotides could polymerize into proteins and RNA.

Lane and his team have built a reactor to mimic these conditions, and are testing their ideas. “We’ve produced ribose and deoxyribose, acetyl phosphate, and other organics” (p. 119, 134).

Geochemistry gives rise seamlessly to biochemistry. (p. 27)

Cells form:

Lipid bilayers form spontaneously from fatty acids. (p. 135)

Genetic code forms; heredity; self-replication. (p. 135–136) Catalytic dinucleotides could generate amino acids from simpler percursors.

Today’s oceans are no longer conducive to starting new life in that way: there’s too much oxygen and too little carbon dioxide now. (p. 112)

Life arose on Earth perhaps 4 billion years ago—half a billion years after Earth was formed—including archaea and bacteria, which had Earth to themselves for 2 billion years. Eukaryotes arose maybe 1.7 billion years ago—cells with a membrane-bound nucleus, mitochondria, straight chromosomes, dynamic cytoskeleton, and other complex structures, and sexual reproduction: plants, animals, algae, fungi, protists. (pp. 26, 160)

Complex life (eukaryotes) likely started from a bacterium entering an archaeal cell as an endosymbiont. The endosymbionts became mitochondria, losing all but 13 of their protein-coding genes to the host cell’s nucleus, and specializing in energy production.

Nick Lane is a good writer and a voracious reader, collaborator, researcher and author in his field.

Whereas a university student can spend a scholastic career learning only orthodox dogma, what was learned in bygone generations—in this book Lane introduces us to big questions to which the answers aren’t known. But the answers to some of them might be knowable. He lets us in on how he and his colleagues are trying to find out. Well done.



Profile Image for Deogratias Rweyemamu.
47 reviews6 followers
August 2, 2016
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 evolutionary logic unlike anything I've read so far.

I recommend the book to curious minds in search of answers and healthier questions to why we're here.

My favorite quote was from Jacques Monod, who was featured in the book among the many brilliant scientists: "The ancient covenant is in pieces; man knows at last that he is alone in the universe's unfeeling immensity, out of which he emerged only by chance. His destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor is his duty. The kingdom above or the darkness below: it is for him to choose."
Profile Image for Rossdavidh.
520 reviews160 followers
February 21, 2016
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 like that.

When I was a child in school, I was taught that life could be divided into animals, plants, fungi, and bacteria. Some time after that, maybe in college or perhaps later, I heard that they had divided bacteria into two groups, one of which was still called "bacteria", the other was now called "archaea". This seemed, to me, a pointless splitting, like people who think that post-punk and deathrock are totally different, and should be considered independent genres on the level of jazz, rock, and classical.

But, it turns out, this wasn't just some researchers in bacteria getting nitpicky about their chosen topic. It turns out that our cells, and those of every mammal, bird, lizard, fish, etc. in existence, are made of bacteria trapped inside archaea. It's like our cells shouldn't even be called the same thing as bacterial cells. Somewhere back in time, probably in a single event, a bacteria got lost inside an archaea cell, and somehow neither one of them died.

Imagine if you ate something, and it didn't die, but it also didn't make you sick. In fact, after a while, you started to depend on it to survive. Life, it turns out, is weird, and evolution isn't only about bigger things killing smaller ones. Sometimes, it's more about cooperating than competing, but figuring out how something like that could happen is a pretty difficult topic.

Nearly as improbable, is that a researcher in the field of the origins of life would decide that a book on the origins of, and distinctions between, archaea and bacteria, would be suitable for the general public. Or that he would convince a publisher of this. Or that it would turn out to be true.

It helps a lot that Lane is unstinting in his use of pictures and diagrams, and that he has a narrative voice which is the very opposite of the dry, third person, emotionless narrator that so many science textbooks use. He is interested in his topic, he can't wait to tell you about it, and you can practically see him grinning with excitement and gesturing wildly with his hands as you read.

We spend a lot of time at the bottom of the ocean in this book, near hyrdrothermal vents. We also spend a lot of time shrunk down to microscopic size and looking around at how things work, or used to work, or perhaps maybe used to work. We find out that "sex is far more widespread than seems reasonable." We are also called upon to sit up, read carefully, and think over what we just read from time to time. But, we never have to stifle a yawn; this is the kind of book that calls for an effort, but never requires an effort to stay awake. This is not your high school science textbook, not least because it's covering not only established science, but also a good bit of speculation and informed guesses that may or may not turn out to be true.

We are, I have said before, living in the Golden Age of popular science writing. Nick Lane's book is another example of why.
Profile Image for György.
121 reviews6 followers
June 4, 2016
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, and molecular biology reinforced by biochemistry as well, which was new for me. Mr. Lane is not just brilliant biochemist, but he is a great storyteller. His style is captivating, the way he manages to lead into that breathtaking, appalling, creepy world of microbial... you know, before I've tried to take a look closer, but gave up on half way in gut! This book has succeeded in made my feeling of disgust disappear. The bacteria was for me something chilling until the moment Mr. Lane presented the basic recipe for life, and with skills of a magician opened all the doors into a cellular world showing in bright colours what the redox is, what cells and bacteria were doing in past 2 billion years and how that is related to the function of our cells. In one moment I was just a reader and in next he made me imagine I'm an ATP molecule flying somehow into cell, penetrating the membrane of mitochondria, and I've not just saw, but felt the unbelievable intensity of the draft the electron hungry oxygen creates between self and the electron donors in respiratory chain. I saw the proton machinery, the rotor and the stator, I felt I'm hearing the sound when an ATP coin is landing into and is spent to make a turn on rotor. I saw the mystery of electron tunnelling within the proton machinery,..sometime I felt I'm lost, but author is there to help you out. Of course, the reader will be in near proximity, like in time machine, when that fantastic jump, the crucial leap in life of a cell is happening that lead to development of complexity.
What was different? Why was this book so important? Yes, we have all passed biology lectures, learned something about cell biology, but if we ever touched the basics of the life and generally the being, we saw it strictly in a sort of separated manner- like, we and the nature, nature and we! You read this book, and the result will be mind-bending! The reader will gain a new feeling, a new big picture will emerge out of the scientific story. This new image will powerfully teach the reader, that there is no us and nature, but that we are one, we are the nature. We are the part of the nature that exists as the intrinsic result of the potencialityi of nature, its basic elements to, at the end of the day, when certain conditions are met to fold into something that we know as us, humans. We are the part of the nature with until now known highest order.
I wish to all to enjoy this trip into the enigma. Cheers!
Profile Image for Nicky.
4,138 reviews1,015 followers
June 29, 2017
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 “junk” DNA. But he covers a lot of interesting stuff about endosymbiosis, mitochondria, the way mitochondria work with the host cell, how the differences between bacteria and archaea arose… It’s a wide-ranging book, and it’s hard to summarise everything that he touches on.

He also makes some pretty bold predictions about life elsewhere in the universe — that it will work in pretty much the same way as it does on Earth. I don’t disagree with what he says here.

So all in all, a worthwhile read, but bring your thinking cap if you’re not a biologist.

Reviewed for The Bibliophibian.
Profile Image for Arafat Rahman.
Author 3 books23 followers
October 13, 2016
এ বইটার উল্লেখ পাই বিল গেটসের 5 Books to Read This Summer পোস্��টিতে। বিল গেটস পাঁড় পাঠক। শুধু পড়েনই না, নিয়মিত পড়া বইগুলো নিয়ে gatesnotes.com সাইটটিতে লেখেনও। এ পাঁচটি বইয়ের মধ্যে Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind-ও রয়েছে।
বইটার তিন লাইনের সারাংশ: আমরা প্রাণকে ডিএনএ-তথ্য রেসিপি হিসেবে দেখতে অভ্যস্থ। তবে বুড়ো হওয়া, কোষীয় আত্মহত্যা থেকে শুরু করে যৌনতা ইত্যাদি অনেক রহস্যের গোঁড়া হচ্ছে এর শক্তি উৎপাদন প্রক্রিয়ায়। এ বইটিতে সাম্প্রতিককালে জীববিজ্ঞান গবেষণায় এই তথ্যকেন্দ্রীক বনাম শক্তিকেন্দ্রীক 'প্যারাডাইম শিফট' বা সামগ্রিক দৃষ্টিভঙ্গির পরিবর্তনের বিষয়টা এসেছে।
57 reviews14 followers
February 13, 2019
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 hindsight bias) from first principles. Through this, we explore the relationships between energy, thermodynamics, life, aerobic capacity, sex, fertility, ageing and death. Very fascinating indeed!
alkaline hydrothermal vents
(Only -4000000000 BC kids will remember this)
Profile Image for Lemar.
672 reviews56 followers
May 8, 2019
“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 at our favorite subject, us!
Lane constantly lays a firm foundation, for example, “geochemistry gives rise to biochemistry.”
“Incorporating energy into evolution is long overdue, and begins to lay a more predictive basis to natural selection.”
Lane goes out on a limb (tree of life pun unavoidable here) at several points, proposing theories about the origin of microbial life!, and his blend of endosymbiosis! He’s got me all fired/geeked up, great book!
Profile Image for Bharath.
642 reviews475 followers
September 23, 2016
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 does not entirely achieve that goal - standing between being for serious scientists and the average reader. There are parts which are very detailed (almost as much as a biology textbook).

That said, it is an important book and provided me new insights about evolution in many areas. I had to read slowly and I reckon most average readers would need to do the same.
Profile Image for Dan Graser.
Author 4 books105 followers
July 2, 2016
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 lifeforms to a greater degree than I have ever read, with remarkable conclusions. Bold and ambitious work that is well worth your time.
Profile Image for Radiantflux.
428 reviews412 followers
July 10, 2017
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.

Profile Image for Atila Iamarino.
411 reviews4,384 followers
April 4, 2016
Gostei bastante, uma discussão bem atual é bem completa sobre o que leva à formação de células complexas. Mas tendo lido há pouco tempo o Sex, Power, Suicide, do mesmo autor, boa parte do livro fica redundante. Recomendo esse direto e desisti de ler o Oxygen dele, já que é o mais antigo e tb um tanto redundante.
Profile Image for Sookie.
1,135 reviews91 followers
March 26, 2017
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 to realize how much one doesn't know when it comes to life and how evolution spun off in various directions.

At its core, the way an organism works is like a well functioning factory. There is more physics to it than I imagined as Lane explains how energy is stored and spent. The technical details he provides is repetitive but it only helps to understand the literature better. Basic chemistry, biology and a bit of physics would be useful going into this book. For a popular science book, its quite dense and plays with an intriguing narrative.

The book offers a great deal of content. Its a laborious process so go through every chapter with detailed analysis of subject at hand complete with historical anecdotes. The experience is completely worth it and Vital Question is one of the best popular science books out there in this discipline.
Profile Image for Mick Kelly.
Author 2 books5 followers
May 14, 2015
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'.
Profile Image for Peter Tillman.
3,682 reviews344 followers
December 4, 2022
Try again? It starts well,then goes over my head....

I did have it out again, this past January. Book sat there, reminding me of my failure to understand photosynthesis. Which is, in truth, really hard.
Profile Image for Doa'a Ali.
143 reviews58 followers
September 26, 2021
حدثٌ فريدٌ من نوعه، حدث لمرة واحدة ربما او لعدد محدود من المرّات على سطح كوكب الأرض، ولسنا متأكدين بعد من حدوثه في الكواكب التي طالتها أيدي علومنا..
إنها الحياة، التي ما تزال لغزًا عميقًا ومحيّرًا للعلماء، ليس لها تعريف قياسي تم الاتفاق عليه من المجتمع العلمي، وما زالت البحوث تكشف عن مناطق مظلمة كثيرة في أرجاء هذا العلم..

حين ننظر للحياة منذ ان بدأ الانسان يدوّن ملاحظاته ويبحث عن اجابات لتساؤلاته حول الكائنات الحية، نجد الغموض، وصعوبة ايجاد وسائل لاشباع الفضول، فالتاريخ الطبيعي مُفكّك، لم يصلنا منه الا الأحافير التي تم حفظها، وهي بالتالي تتميز بخصائص مكنتها من بقاء آثار لها، اما بوجود هياكل عظمية، او اشكال مميزة حفظت كصور مطبوعة في طبقات الصخور. في حين ان انواع الكائنات هي اوسع بكثير من تلك المرئية، وهناك سنين طويلة لم يصلنا منها اي أخبار عن الاحياء. كما تعتمد دراسة التاريخ الطبيعي على العلوم الحديثة في الكيمياء الحيوية وقراءة معلومات الجينوم وغيرها من الوسائل، وما تزال مفككة، تحتاج جهود حثيثة للرجوع للخلف، فهناك مطبات كثيرة حول ما هو متشابه وما هو مختلف بين الخلايا الحية سواء المعقدة او البدائية.

لا مانع من خوض رحلة في المحاولات الحثيثة لفهم الأسئلة الكبرى في علم الاحياء
فما هي الحياة؟ وما هو العيش؟
كيف بدأت الحياة من الواقع الفيزيائي_الكيميائي؟ وهل هي شيء "طبيعي" مدفوع بالقوانين العادية؟ ما هي الطاقة عند منشأ الحياة وكيف بدأت الخلايا بالبزوغ؟ هل هناك ترتيب خطي للاحداث الحيّة على وجه الأرض؟ ماذا عن التعقيد، اعقد مسألة بعد الانبثاق في علم الحياة، هل كان نتيجة انتقاء طبيعي في الخلايا البدائية؟ ام كان محصلة للبلعمة والمعايشات الجوفية؟ ماذا عن تنوع وتطور اساليب التكاثر واهمها الجنس، هذا اللغز المريع الذي تحكمه قوانين صارمة، كيف بدأ؟ ولماذا هو مستمر بشكل واحد فقط لا يتبدل بكل انواع الكائنات؟ ما هو الموت ولماذا هناك موت بدل الخلود؟
كيف نفهم كل هذه التفاصيل المعقدة بأبعادها العميقة جدًا في علم الكيمياء الحيوية..

كتاب ثري جدًا وعلمي بامتياز للعظيم #نك_لين

ادعو القرّاء لخوض هذه المغامرة الصعبة التي تؤتي ثمارها حتمًا..
Profile Image for Erik Möller.
10 reviews2 followers
March 16, 2016
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 understanding of this inner cell machinery -- which exploits effects even at the level of quantum tunneling -- that hold great promises for humanity: curing cancer, manufacturing life-saving drugs cheaply, even solving the world's energy crisis.

Therein also lies the difficulty in writing a book like this: you can't do it without going into wickedly complex biochemistry and physics, or without encountering biology's hefty jargon. Lane does his best with illustrations and a glossary, but this book would still have benefited from more attention to its complex sections, and less repetition of its core theses.

That said, the central case for the "energy bottleneck" that led to the development of complex cells is well made, and has potentially profound and far-reaching implications for astrobiology.

I'm giving this book 4.5 stars, but rounding up because Lane's work is a breath of fresh air in a world with mountains of pop-sci books that pretend-explain things by throwing endless unconnected anecdotes at the reader. In contrast, you may want to come back to this book repeatedly to understand some of its nuance better, if you don't find yourself too frustrated by its most challenging parts.
Profile Image for Philipp.
632 reviews188 followers
September 23, 2015
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 circumstances - therefore, life on other planets should evolve very similarly (I'm reminded of Gleick's The Information, making similar points about the development of writing). From there he goes on to hypothesize about the evolution of complex(er) cells, the interaction of mitochondrial and nuclear genomes in the development of different life-spans and sexuality, and more.

There's a tom of interesting stuff here, it's definitely a novel perspective.

Some pet-peeves remain: for example, like Dan Brown Lane can't introduce scientists without giving them a positive adjective like "eminent" - you can't help but feel a bit "propaganda'd". In times it reads like Lane is channeling Sagan, and you can't help but feel that there was someone shouting "isn't this amazing!?!" while writing it - in other cases it's more like reading a textbook with very dry descriptions of the involved biochemistry.

Recommended for: Biologists, laypeople interested in the origins of life
Profile Image for John.
124 reviews2 followers
October 23, 2015
One star seems a little unfair; to be honest, I didn't get very far before I hit a wall of incomprehension. I couldn't tell if my lack of understanding was as a result of my lack of knowledge of molecular biology, or his bad writing. Probably a combination of both. The book is "challenging" for the lay reader, to say the least. Which is a shame.
I bring to the table an avid fascination in the latest thinking on the origin and development of life; in fact, I think one would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn't, but the book clearly explaining Lanes' ideas has yet to be written, and probably not by him.
Coincidently, I've been reading Steven Pinker's new book, A sense of Style, in which he extols what he calls the "classical" style of writing; a clear, well-phrased and lively art as practiced by, say, Brian Green. To write like that, a writer has to have some understanding of the LACK of understanding of her readership, an empathetic quality that allows her to place herself in the reader's shoes. To have Lane read it might be too much to ask of a deeply committed and brilliant biologist, who isn't first and foremost such a writer, but unless he does his ideas are likely to remain niche. Clearly, he does want to reach a broad audience – otherwise why write the book? – but unless he can (I'm tempted to write "dumb down" but actually "wise-up" would be more apt) his act, someone else will steal his thunder.
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