Transformer: The Deep Chemistry of Life and Death

About the book

What brings the Earth to life, and our own lives to an end?

For decades, biology has been dominated by information – the power of genes. Yet in terms of information, there is no difference between a living cell and one that died a moment ago. What really animates cells and sets them apart from non-living matter? This question goes back to the flawed geniuses and heroic origins of modern biology. The answer could turn our picture of life on Earth upside down.

In Transformer, Nick Lane captures a scientific renaissance that is hiding in plain sight. At its core is a cycle of reactions that transforms inorganic molecules into the building blocks of life, and the reverse – the iconic Krebs cycle that sits at the heart of metabolism. This conflicted merry-go-round of energy and matter has long taunted true understanding. Nick Lane is in the vanguard of scientists now tracing its ramifications across the tree of life.

To grasp the Krebs cycle is to fathom the deep coherence of biology. It connects the first photosynthetic bacteria with our peculiar cells. It links the emergence of consciousness with the inevitability of death. And it puts the subtle differences between individuals in the same grand story as the rise of the living world itself.

Life is at root a chemical phenomenon: this is its deep logic.

Published by Profile Books


  • ‘In this compulsive readable book, Lane takes us on a riveting journey, ranging from the flow of energy to new ways of understanding cancer. Lane provides a luminous understanding of how scientists, including Lane himself, are rethinking energy and living organisms’
    Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of The Emperor of All Maladies, The Gene: An Intimate History
  • ‘Thrilling and highly persuasive … This hugely important book is set to become a landmark, transforming our understanding of how life works’
    Gaia Vince, author of Transcendence
  • ‘Hugely important ... a powerfully persuasive case for life being about energy flow, flux and change. In Transformer, chemistry is quite literally brought to life’
    Jim Al-Khalili, author of The World According To Physics
  • ‘Amazing! Takes science writing to a new level ... with soaring prose but uncompromising on scientific detail, Transformer made me think about life on earth in a completely different way’
    Daniel M. Davis, author of The Secret Body
  • ‘Hugely ambitious and tremendously exciting ... Transformer shows how a molecular dance from the dawn of time still sculpts our lives today. I read with rapt attention’
    Olivia Judson, evolutionary biologist and author
  • ‘Nobody explains the inner secrets of the living cell better than Nick Lane’
    Richard Fortey, author of Trilobite!
  • ‘An exhilarating account of the biophysics of life, stretching from the first stirrings of living matter to the psychology of consciousness. I felt as if I was there, every step of the way’
    Mark Solms, author of The Hidden Spring: A Journey to the Source of Consciousness
  • ‘Nick Lane's marvellously engaging Transformer refocused my astronomer's gaze on the vital chemistry of life on our own planet. Both a scientific adventure story and an original quest to understand life on Earth, Transformer also guides us on how to find life beyond’
    John Grunsfeld, former NASA Chief Scientist and Astronaut
  • A stone-cold classic Adam Rutherford
  • This is probably the best book on biology (and more specifically biochemistry) that I’ve ever read. Brian Clegg, Popular Science Books
  • A thrilling tour of the remarkable stories behind the discoveries of some of life’s key metabolic pathways and mechanisms. He lays bare the human side of science… The book brings to life the chemistry that brings us to life. Joseph Moran, Science
  • Biochemist Nick Lane is one of our boldest thinkers and a key researcher into the origin and deep history of life… While Elon Musk wants to colonise Mars, Bill Gates is backing Nick Lane. Peter Forbes, Prospect
  • Accessible, illuminating, and thrilling. George Kendall, Booklist
  • Deeply researched and cogently written.
    Andrew Robinson, Nature

Chapter extracts


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