The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life
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“One of the deepest, most illuminating books about the history of life to have been published in recent years.” ―The Economist
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?
at which apoptosis is triggered. Above that threshold, the speed of electron flux through the mosaic respiratory chain is just not good enough – it’s not up to the job. Individual cells, and by extension the whole embryo, die by apoptosis. Conversely, below the threshold, electron flux is fast enough. If so, then it follows that the two genomes must function well together. The cells, and by extension the whole embryo, do not kill themselves. Instead, development continues, and all being well a
changes in demand may explain why mitochondria have retained a small genome (see Chapter 5). 10 This looks like a contradiction – larger species typically have a lower metabolic rate, gram per gram, yet I have talked about male mammals being larger and having a higher metabolic rate, the opposite. Within a species the differences in mass are trivial compared with the many orders of magnitude plotted out between species; on that scale the metabolic rates of adults in the same species are
to protons. But all experiments with plausible early membranes suggest that they would have been highly permeable to protons. It’s extremely difficult to keep them out. The problem is that chemiosmotic coupling looks to be useless until a number of sophisticated proteins have been embedded in a proton-tight membrane; and then, but only then, does it serve a purpose. So how on earth did all the parts evolve in advance? It’s a classic chicken and egg problem. What’s the point of learning to pump
biochemistry – the continuous formation and concentration of reactive precursors, fostering interactions between molecules and the formation of simple polymers. The second stage was the formation of simple organic protocells within the pores of the vents, as a natural outcome of the physical interactions between organics – simple dissipative cell-like structures, formed by the self-organisation of matter, but as yet without any genetic basis or real complexity. I would see these simple
French biologist Jacques Monod wrote his famous book Chance and Necessity, which argues bleakly that the origin of life on earth was a freak accident, and that we are alone in an empty universe. The final lines of his book are close to poetry, an amalgam of science and metaphysics: 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