Saturday, August 15, 2015
Nick Lane, The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life
At a deeper level, there are two fundamental ways to think about life: as information, and as energy. In this age of computers and genomics were are all taken up with information, and to many scientists the genetic code seems the most fundamental thing about life. Thus we have models of life's origins that begin with naked RNA molecules floating around in an organic soup, creating copies of themselves from available materials.
Nick Lane is a British biochemist who has written a couple of semi-popular books, and in The Vital Question (2015) he offers a completely different take on life's beginnings. Lane prefers to focus on energy, and he dismisses naked RNA molecules as a fantasy. Copying a chain of RNA takes energy, which in a cell is supplied by a whole armada of ATP molecules; where would the energy come from to assemble and maintain all of these independent RNA strands? Lane also dismisses the notion that life could have originated in the sort of organic stew posited by older models. Modern geophysics, he says, shows the ancient ocean was chemically very similar to the modern ocean, and except for the absence of oxygen the early atmosphere was also much like our own.
It is an impressive theory, and it seems almost plausible until you remember that it has no role for DNA or RNA. How could the genetic code, which seems so fundamental to everything life does, somehow be added to a chemically sophisticated cell? Beats me.
But, anyway, Lane's ideas are interesting, and it is fascinating for someone who received his scientific education in the 1980s to read about the incredible molecular machinery of the cell. Most of what Lane discussed was only guessed at the last time I sat in a science class, and it is very cool stuff.
As I said, I didn't really follow. But The Vital Question is a fascinating book, full of both data and speculation at a high level. If these questions intrigue you and you remember the basics of first year chemistry and biology, you might find it very worth your while.