Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life

About the book

What gives us our energy, is behind the origin of two sexes, and directs our ageing and death? The answer in each case lies in mitochondria.

Mitochondria are tiny structures located inside our cells – miniature powerhouses that use oxygen to generate power. There are hundreds of them in each cell, some 10 million billion in a human being. Once considered menial slaves, mere workhorses for complex cells with nuclei, their significance is now undergoing a radical revision. Mitochondria are now seen as the key ingredient that made complex life possible at all.

For two billion years, bacteria ruled the earth without ever generating true complexity – a stasis that may still grip life on other planets. Then the union of two bacterial cells led to an evolutionary big bang, from which algae, fungi, plants and animals emerged. For mitochondria were once free-living bacteria, and still retain unmistakable traits of their ancestry, including some of their original DNA. Ever since their fateful absorption, the tortuous and unpredictable relationship between the mitochondria and their host cells has forced one evolutionary innovation after another. Without mitochondria, nothing would exist of the world we know and love. Their story is the story of life itself.

Today, mitochondria are central to research into human prehistory, genetic diseases, cell suicide, fertility, ageing, bioenergetics, sex and the eukaryotic cell. Piecing together puzzles from the forefront of research, this book paints a sweeping canvas that will thrill all who are interested in biology, while also contributing to evolutionary thinking and debate.

This is a book full of startling insights into the nature and evolution of life, and should be read by anyone who wants to know why we’re here.


Mitochondrial Dawn
Mitochondrial Dawn by Odra Noel

In the primordial unfertilised egg cell the mitochondria encircle the nucleus (in blue) in discrete rings, separated by membranes. A dialogue between the nuclear and mitochondrial genes appears to take place. The requirement for one set of mitochondria to work with one set of nuclear genes means that sperm mitochondria are excluded from the fertilised egg; and this is why we need to have two sexes – the female provides mitochondria tuned to a particular nucleus, while the sperm are adapted to exclude their mitochondria from the next generation.


  • Magnificent... explains life's workings, fabric and inner logic with a previously unapproachable coherence
    Oliver Morton, PROSPECT
  • Impressive… readable, provocative and often persuasive. Although written for the general reader, it manages to cover its enormous range of topics in considerable depth, and the technical details are very well managed… Much of what he says is plausible, very well explained, and undoubtedly important. This is an exciting and unusual book.
    Jonathan Hodgkin, Times Literary Supplement
  • Audacious... parts of it qualify as primary literature, by announcing at least two major, original and testable hypotheses.... The book was written for anyone interested in some of the most profound questions of twentyfirst-century science. The central proposals of Power, Sex, Suicide are clearly and forcefully propounded, are serious, have far-reaching consequences — and may even be correct. This is a new take on why we are here. Do, please, read this book.
    John F. Allen (Nature)
  • An enthralling account...The author has accomplished something quite breathtaking... Moreover, he brings the science alive...he is always accessible, lively, thought provoking and informative. Every Biologist should read this book." Philip John, The Biologist
  • Nick Lane makes a persuasive case that we owe these tiny clumps of genetic material lurking in our cells more than we can imagine. It was mitochondria, in his view, that allowed us 'eukaryotes' (beings with nuclei in our cells) to break away from the bacteria, to grow larger, to join together, to split into sexes, and now force us to age. This is heavy stuff, but Lane compensates by flattering the reader into feeling that they are being asked to evaluate opinions which other scientists would dub heretical. Challenging, but rewarding
    Robert Colville, The Observer,
  • Full of startling insights into the nature and evolution of life as we know it. Economist
  • An exhilarating visit to some frontiers of modern biology, by a writer who’s not afraid to think big – and think hard Frank Wilczek, 2004 Nobel Laureate in Physics, Update Magazine (The New York Academy of Sciences)
  • "An enjoyable and readable book. Nick Lane has achieved the difficult goal of taking selected aspects of a complex field and making them intelligible. To do so, he employs some felicitous turns of phrase... Power, Sex, Suicide focuses strongly on theories relating to evolutionary aspects of the mitochondrion. Mitochondriologists may find some of his preferred hypotheses too controversial but they, and anyone interested in the broader and more philosophical aspects of their discipline, will profit from reading the book
    David G. Nicholls, Science
  • I defy anyone (who doesn't know about mitochondria in detail already) to read this book and not come out amazed by the incredible subtly, complexity and downright unlikeliness of the mechanisms of biological construction. This book will open your eyes to the almost incredible processes going on... it opens up the secrets with an obvious delight from Lane that the readers are likely to share. Recommended
    Popular Science
  • A thought-provoking synthesis ... the very articulate writing style makes the going as easy as it could be... I am happy to recommend wholeheartedly Nick Lane’s book to anyone who is interested in central issues in contemporary biology
    Stuart Ferguson, The Biochemist
  • A most thought-provoking book… His knowledge of the field is truly impressive, as he surveys major trends in evolutionary biology, cell biology, population biology and genetics, bioenergetics, power-law theory, and complexity, to name but a few of the fields covered - and then follows the data to likely logical conclusions… Well worth reading.
    Eric A. Schon, Journal of Clinical Investigation
  • The book is serious and scholarly, yet written in an easy-going, non-technical style. Lane argues with verve... It is a brave attempt to accomplish a feat that is becoming all too rare in contemporary science: to grasp the tangle of data from many disparate fields, and to weave them into a unifying pattern that makes sense of the way things are.
    Franklin Harold, Microbe Magazine (American Society of Microbiology)
  • His book does not make for an easy read; it is eccentrically organised and packed with more detail than any other than committed mitochondriacs might wish to know. But embedded within it is one of the most interesting stories modern biology has to tell.
    Steven Rose (The Guardian)
  • Traditionalists beware: You will be taken on an extraordinary journey, from the depths of time to the present and ultimately to where the Grim Reaper rules... Reading the book is a thought-provoking exercise that could invigorate mitochondrial research.
    Mark van der Giezen, EMBO Reports
  • This is a wonderful book, not only for learning more about mitochondria, but also for addressing important questions: Who are we? Why are we here on earth? Why do we have sex? Why are there two sexes? Why do we fall in love and have children? And why must we grow old and die? This enlightening book provides a good starting point for fruitful discussions of all these questions.
    Sølve Tegnér Stenmark, Science in School, Summer 2006
  • Mitochondria are truly fascinating beasts. As a Darwinian evolutionist, the author tells a good tale, and there are more twists and turns than in an average detective story, all plausible and potentially possible. This is a "popular science" book, aimed at the non-specialist with the admirable goal of making the topic more accessible.
    John Alcolado, The British Medical Journal
  • One of the most interesting stories modern biology has to tell.
    Steven Rose, The Guardian
  • Lane delivers his arguments thoroughly and persuasively… his respectful treatment of other viewpoints and his readers’ intelligence makes for refreshing reading in this era of polemics thinly disguised as pseudoscience Charleston Post and Courier
  • Full of fascinating insights into the origins of life and the way that mitochondria play key roles from the moment of conception to the moment of death. Is there anything that mitochondria cannot do? Tony Onyett, Chemistry World, Royal Society of Chemistry
  • An exhilarating ride through the geography and history of all life on earth… I can’t help being jealous of his audacity, ambition, breadth of knowledge, penetrating reasoning, and writing style Guy Brown, Mitochondrial Physiology Society Review
  • From the secret of longevity to why we are here at all, Lane's story is intriguing.... he argues convincingly that "mitochondria are the clandestine rulers of our world. PD Smith, The Guardian, paperbacks, December 2006
  • A great read. I recommend wholeheartedly this book. It is superbly written. Barry Halliwell, Free Radical Research, September 2006
  • Tne writes with a fluent, easy-to-read style and discusses some major theories that are truly amazing and enlightening.... I never thought that reading a lengthy book entirely about mitochondria could be so pleasurable. Lane excels at highlighting the importance and significance of this organelle, resulting in a text which is accessible and fascinating in equal measure. Lucy Moore, Sense about Science
  • Presents an extraordinary account of how complex life arose, why we have to have sex to procreate, and even why our lives must lamentably end. A captivating and thought-provoking book, recommended to anyone intrigued by the wonder and bizarreness of life. Science a GoGo
  • An extraordinary account of groundbreaking modern science… The book abounds with interesting and important ideas. Mark Ridley, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford

Chapter extracts

Introduction. Mitochondria - Clandestine Rulers of the World

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Part 1. Hopeful Monster - The Origin of the Eukaryotic Cell

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Part 2. The Vital Force - Proton Power and the Origin of Life

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Part 3. Insider Deal - The Foundations of Complexity

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Part 4. Power Laws - Size and the Ramp of Ascending Complexity

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Part 5. Murder or Suicide - The Troubled Birth of the Individual

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Part 6. Battle of the Sexes - Human Prehistory and the Nature of Gender

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Part 7. Clock of Life - Why Mitochondria Kill us in the End

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ISBN-10: 0199205647
ISBN-13: 978-0199205646