Oxygen: The Molecule that made the World

About the book

Oxygen has had extraordinary effects on life.

Three hundred million years ago, in Carboniferous times, dragonflies grew as big as seagulls, with wingspans of nearly a metre. Researchers claim they could have flown only if the air had contained more oxygen than today – probably as much as 35 per cent. Giant spiders, tree-ferns, marine rock formations and fossil charcoals all tell the same story. High oxygen levels may also explain the global firestorm that contributed to the demise of the dinosaurs after the asteroid impact.

The strange and profound effects that oxygen has had on the evolution of life pose a riddle, which this book sets out to answer. Oxygen is a toxic gas. Divers breathing pure oxygen at depth suffer from convulsions and lung injury. Fruit flies raised at twice normal atmospheric levels of oxygen live half as long as their siblings. Reactive forms of oxygen, known as free radicals, are thought to cause ageing in people. Yet if atmospheric oxygen reached 35 per cent in the Carboniferous, why did it promote exuberant growth, instead of rapid ageing and death?

Oxygen takes the reader on an enthralling journey, as gripping as a thriller, as it unravels the unexpected ways in which oxygen spurred the evolution of life and death. The book explains far more than the size of ancient insects: it shows how oxygen underpins the origin of biological complexity, the birth of photosynthesis, the sudden evolution of animals, the need for two sexes, the accelerated ageing of cloned animals like Dolly the sheep, and the surprisingly long lives of bats and birds.

Drawing on this grand evolutionary canvas, Oxygen offers fresh perspectives on our own lives and deaths, explaining modern killer diseases, why we age, and what we can do about it. Advancing revelatory new ideas, following chains of evidence, the book ranges through many disciplines, from environmental sciences to molecular medicine. The result is a captivating vision of contemporary science and a humane synthesis of our place in nature. This remarkable book will redefine the way we think about the world.

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  • Highly ambitious.... Oxygen is a piece of radical scientific polemic, nothing less than a total rethink of how life evolved between about 3.5 billion and 543 million years ago, and how that relates to the diseases we suffer from today.... This is science writing at its best.
    Jerome Burne, The Financial Times
  • Lane's book is an extraordinary orchestration of disparate scientific disciplines, connecting the origins of life on earth with disease, age and death in human beings. John Cornwell, SUNDAY TIMES, Books of the Year, 2002
  • Lane has written a wonderful book about the dual role of oxygen in life and death.... This is a scientific saga as compelling as any creation myth and Lane tells it with appropriate zeal.
  • Enthralling.... An excellent book. It held me spellbound for a 7 hour plane flight. I recommend it unreservedly."
    Barry Halliwell, FREE RADICAL RESEARCH
  • A persuasive, demanding attempt to answer some of the most fundamental questions in biology… One of the deepest, most illuminating books about the history of life to have been published in recent years.
  • . . . popular science writing at its very best - clear yet challenging, speculative yet rigorous. The book is a tour de force which orchestrates a seamless story out of both venerable ideas and very recent discoveries in several disparate fields. Bernard Dixon
  • . . . a breathtaking, broad vision of the role of a single gas in our life, from the origin of organisms, through the emergence of creatures, and to their deaths . . . packed full of interesting life-and-death stories...A wonderful read.
    Peter Atkins (New Scientist)
  • . . . one of the most thought-provoking books I have ever read. John Emsley
  • Nick Lane's chapters are dispatches from the frontiers of research into Earth and life history, but they contain nothing that will lose the patient reader and much that will reward.
    Tim Radford (The Guardian)
  • Broad-ranging and densely argued.... Lane's learning and historical scope enable vivid descriptions of the role oxygen has played in determining the course of evolution.... [an] ambitious and detailed work Michael Peel , Times Literary Supplement
  • Oxygen's history has never been told as well as Nick Lane tells it here. If there's a fact about oxygen that's worth knowing , it's included.... one of the better books to appear this year David Payne, Focus Magazine
  • Enjoyable and informative… Oxygen presents an entertaining and cogent account of how oxidative stress fits in to our rapidly expanding knowledge about ageing … a nicely crafted account of an important element's place in our lives … deserves to be widely read
    Tom Kirkwood, Nature
  • British biochemist Lane examines questions of life and death as seen through the lens of oxygen.... Provocative and complexly argued (starred review) Kirkus Reviews
  • This is truly a unique book which takes the reader into unknown territory....Once you start reading it's difficult to put it down.... might well become the talking point of 2003 John Emsley, Chem@Cam
  • One cannot understand evolution by studying internal factors (genes) alone! Nick Lane shows how oxygen shapes life. Oxygen is more than just another environmental factor. Oxygen is a mixed blessing: we cannot live without it, but it kills us in the end. Oxygen is the elixir of life - and death. A new perspective on life, evolution, ageing, death, sex, longevity, and disease. Nick Lane's biophysical expertise is a necessary ingredient of an Evolutionary Synthesis. Gert Korthof, www.wasdarwinwrong.com
  • A glorious book that tells of dragonflies as big as seagulls, hotels in huge metal balls, the magic of photosynthesis... and why we get old. Do NOT miss this book! David Freeman, Relaxwithabook.com

Chapter extracts

Chapter 1- Elixir of Life and Death

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Chapter 5 - The Bolsover Dragonfly

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Chapter 8 - Looking for LUCA

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Chapter 14 - Beyond Genes and Destiny

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ISBN-13: 978-0198607830
ISBN-10: 0198607830