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The Vital Question
Cover of The Vital Question
The Vital Question
Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life
by Nick Lane
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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?

"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?

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About the Author-
  • Nick Lane is a biochemist in the Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment at University College London, and leads the UCL Origins of Life Program. He was awarded the 2015 Biochemical Society Award for his outstanding contribution to the molecular life sciences. He is the author of Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution, which won the 2010 Royal Society Prize for Science Books, as well as Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life and Oxygen: The Molecule that Made the World.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from July 6, 2015
    English biochemist Lane, whose previous book, Life Ascending, won the 2010 Royal Society Prize for Science Books, combines elegant prose and an enthusiasm for big questions as he attempts to peer into a "black hole at the heart of biology." Scientists "have no idea why cells work the way they do," nor "how the parts evolved," though as Lane points out, eukaryotic cells—the building blocks of all multicellular life—share multiple complex structural and functional features. With impeccable logic and current research data, he makes a case for a common ancestor of all multicellular life—one created by a singular endosymbiotic event between a bacterial cell and an archaon cell that became the cell-powering mitochondrion. Lane walks readers through the details of how bacteria alone could have become metabolically diverse but not structurally complex. He then shows how the addition of mitochondria to the equation allowed a shift in energy flow through the cell, and how the migration of DNA introns from mitochondria DNA to the cell nucleus provided a wealth of new genetic material on which evolution could operate. The science is both a puzzle and a dance; Lane retains a sense of wonder as he embraces a bold hypothesis and delights in the hard data that gives it weight.

  • Library Journal

    June 1, 2015

    Celebrated evolutionary biologist Lane (Life Ascending) outlines what he hopes are the "beginnings of a more predictive biology" that may make it "possible to predict the properties of life anywhere in the universe from the chemical composition of the cosmos." Lane eloquently argues that complex eukaryotic life, as wildly disparate as it seems, is stunningly uniform at base, deriving from a single event in which one bacterium entered another and overcame the constraints that held back other such organisms. This singular endosymbiotic occasion, most evident to us today via our cells' mitochondria (which were once free-floating bacteria), triggered an astonishing series of previously impossible evolutionary actions resulting in billions of animal and plant species that yet share a method of conserving energy: chemiosmosis, or the transfer of protons across a membrane. And according to Lane, "Evolution should continue to play out along similar lines, guided by similar constants, elsewhere in the universe." VERDICT Novel and complex ideas, vibrant prose, and the author's careful repetition of central themes, make this book accessible to scientists and science buffs alike.--Cynthia Fox, Brooklyn

    Copyright 2015 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Tim Requarth;New York Times [Nick Lane] proves an able guide through treacherous scientific terrain. He writes in lucid, accessible prose, and while the science may get dense, the reader will be rewarded with a strikingly unconventional view of biology.
  • Michael Le Page;New Scientist (UK) A book of vast scope and ambition, brimming with bold and important ideas.... The arguments are powerful and persuasive...an incredible, epic story.
  • Franklin Harold;Microbe If I were a rich man, I would buy up the print run of this book and give a copy to every science undergraduate ahead of his or her fırst course in cell biology.
  • Oliver Morton;The Economist Intelligent Life Magnificent.... [The Vital Question] contains as convincing an account of the origins of life as any on offer. ...Lane belongs to a small and persuasive cabal that is using studies of the way cells access energy to gain insight into all sorts of questions, from why there are different sexes to why creatures grow old.
  • Clive Cookson;Financial Times (UK) A scintillating synthesis of a new theory of life.
  • Matt Ridley;The Sunday Times (UK) In this, his third book about energy and life, [Lane] comes triumphantly close to cracking the secret of why life is the way it is, to a depth that would boggle any ancient philosopher's mind.
  • Peter Forbes;Guardian (UK) He is an original researcher and thinker and a passionate and stylish populariser. His theories are ingenious, breathtaking in scope, and challenging in every sense...intellectually what Lane is proposing, if correct, will be as important as the Copernican revolution.
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Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life
Nick Lane
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