Review – Independent on Sunday Laurence Phelan, December 2006

Review – Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life – Nick Lane

Independent on Sunday

Laurence Phelan,December 2006

Power! Sex! Suicide! Have we got your attention? OK then, we’re going to talk about mitochondria. No, wait, they really are interesting. You’ve got about 10 million billion of them inside you and, relative to their size, they produce more energy than the sun. They are a prerequisite for sexual reproduction, and they’re responsible for cell death, too, which means that understanding them better is the key to slowing or stalling the aging process.

But even more interesting is these tiny organelles’ place in the very story of life itself. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection tells us that we gradually evolved from single-celled organisms into what we are today over the course of innumerable, tiny incremental steps. In fact, what happened is that for more than half of the entire history of life on earth, evolution remained stuck at the level of complexity of single-celled bacteria. Everything that came after began with the eukaryotic cell, of which all multicellular life forms are built. The definition of a eukaryotic cell is one with a nucleus, but here, Lane explains that the more salient fact may well be that all eukaryotic cells have, or once had, mitochondria.

It’s the most interesting and significant addendum to Darwin’s theory I think I’ve come across since Richard Dawkins explained how genes are the mechanism for evolution. Unfortunately, Lane doesn’t have Dawkins’s talent for explaining things to non-scientists, and it’s hard to keep up with him, and to stay focused on what’s important amid all the really technical stuff.