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

I am all in favour of giving popular science books titles that grab the attention – so three cheers to Nick Lane for the title of this book, even though it does make it distinctly embarrassing to read on the train to work, risks a review like this being banned by parental controls, and even in the bowdlerised version we put into Amazon’s search (Power Suicide Lane) has an ominous ring to it. Never mind, though – because 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.
The subject at the heart of this fat book is a fascinating one: mitochondria, the energy source of the cells of animals and plants, a vital part of every one of us, yet far back in history, an invader from the outside – a once separate, symbiotic entity that has became an essential part of our cells’ functioning.
Unless you are already steeped in the details of how eukaryotic cells work, this book will open your eyes to the almost incredible processes going on. We’re used to mitochondria being referred to as the “powerhouses” of the cell, but exploring that process causes as much amazement now as it did for the scientists who discovered it – most of whom stubbornly refused to believe the man who worked out the fiendishly clever process by which energy is amassed by the mitochondria. Perhaps most wonderful of all is the way that the energy production machine doesn’t just work by chemical processes, or even chemical and electrical processes, but also has a literal molecular motor that turns on an axle as it makes (or breaks) the energy store ATP.
And that’s not all – Lane doesn’t just describe this aspect of the mitochondria’s impact on our lives and being, but shows how the mitochondria’s pivotal role results in ever-so-slightly significant results like the reason for ageing and death (the suicide in the title is cell death, not an ability of mitochondria to turn us into lemmings), and the existence of sex as a means of reproduction. Yes – mitochondria have effectively influenced multi-celled organisms in the direction of this form of reproduction. It somehow doesn’t seem so remarkable, once you’ve read this book, that children’s author Madeleine L’Engle once wrote a story where someone’s mitochondria are in danger of destroying their “host”.
The only bad thing about the book is the tendency to excessive length and the author’s desire to make breakthrough comments – it would have been shorter and more to the point if Lane had stuck to telling us the amazing story of mitochondria without dwelling on who is wrong about what. Of course there’s no definitive story, but he can’t resist having digs at biologists he disagrees with. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the fact that biology has only recently emerged from stamp collecting to become a science (to seriously mangle Rutherford’s famous remark, “all science is either physics or stamp collecting”) that those who write about biology can’t resist personal attacks in their books. To be fair, though, Lane avoids the vehemence of the likes of Daniel Dennett.
Without doubt, of all the essential aspects of life, mitochondria are the least well understood by the general public . This book opens up the secrets with an obvious delight from Lane that the readers are likely to share. Recommended.

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Review by Jo Reed

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