Transformer: The Deep Chemistry of Life and Death. Harvard Science Book Talk. In conversation with Logan McCarty,

Harvard University

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

For decades, biology has been dominated by the study of genetic information. Information is important, but it is only part of what makes us alive. Our inheritance also includes our living metabolic network, a flame passed from generation to generation, right back to the origin of life. In Transformer, biochemist Nick Lane reveals a scientific renaissance that is hiding in plain sight ―how the same simple chemistry gives rise to life and causes our demise.

Lane is among the vanguard of researchers asking why the Krebs cycle, the “perfect circle” at the heart of metabolism, remains so elusive more than eighty years after its discovery. Transformer is Lane’s voyage, as a biochemist, to find the inner meaning of the Krebs cycle―and its reverse―why it is still spinning at the heart of life and death today.

Lane reveals the beautiful, violent world within our cells, where hydrogen atoms are stripped from the carbon skeletons of food and fed to the ravenous beast of oxygen. Yet this same cycle, spinning in reverse, also created the chemical building blocks that enabled the emergence of life on our planet. Now it does both. How can the same pathway create and destroy? What might our study of the Krebs cycle teach us about the mysteries of aging and the hardest problem of all, consciousness?

Transformer unites the story of our planet with the story of our cells―what makes us the way we are, and how it connects us to the origin of life. Enlivened by Lane’s talent for distilling and humanizing complex research, Transformer offers an essential read for anyone fascinated by biology’s great mysteries. Life is at root a chemical phenomenon: this is its deep logic.


Nick Lane is Professor of Evolutionary Biochemistry at University College London and Co-Director of the UCL Centre for Life’s Origins and Evolution. His research is about how energy flow has shaped evolution from the origin of life to the emergence of complex traits such as sex and death. Prof. Lane has published more than 100 papers in top journals including Science, Nature and PNAS. He is best known for his five books on evolution including most recently Transformer: The Deep Chemistry of Life and Death.

Logan McCarty is Asst. Dean of Science Undergraduate Education, Lecturer on Chemistry and Chemical Biology, and Lecturer on Physics at Harvard University. He received undergraduate and Ph.D. degrees in Chemistry from Harvard, where he studied contact electrification of organic polymers (what most people would call “static electricity”). He now directs Harvard’s Science Education Research Lab, which seeks to improve teaching and learning in undergraduate science education. He has taught organic chemistry at Harvard for over 25 years, and also teaches physical chemistry, physics, and applied mathematics. With colleagues from the biology and physics departments, Dr. McCarty created and co-teaches a Harvard General Education course entitled, “What is Life? From Quarks to Consciousness.”

Link:Harvard Science Book Talk: Nick Lane, in conversation with Logan McCarty, “Transformer : The Deep Chemistry of Life and Death”

For more information and videos of Harvard Science Book Talks, see https://science.fas.harvard.edu/book-talks.