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In search of the elixir of life
on 2 October 2003
This book gives a very broad and thoughtful perspective on the importance of oxygen in the development of life on Earth. The chain of reasoning is long and brings to contact discoveries from a series of disciplines otherwise apparently unrelated to each other. In this aspect lies one of the greatest strengths of this book, as it shows, as few have been able to shown, how important it is to have a broad perspective and an open mind to undertake a scientific research program. Besides, the author is most critic to the current trends in medical research, most of them can be traced back to such problems as over-specialisation, and lack of knowledge from nearby research fields. The huge amounts of data accumulating every day leaving no time to reduce it properly and put it coherently in a workable body of knowledge does not help either.
What does this book deal with? Oxygen is an all-important molecule, which is fundamental to life, however it is also a threatening and toxic element as well. Through this book, Nick Lane explains the importance oxygen had in the evolution of life. How it is inferred that our Last Universal Common Ancestor (LUCA) possessed already a series of genes and proteins that lasted until our present days. How these have developed in response to oxidation stress from the environment. How the responses are similar to an organism's reaction to an infectious disease. How this is related to diseases such as Alzheimer, cancer and diabetes. How this can give clues to unravel the secrets of ageing in organisms and the search for better ways to extend a person's life span.
The book covers the early biological, atmospheric, and geological evolution of the Earth. It presents basic biochemical reaction mechanisms. It covers biology and medical research. In the whole, however, it may be considered a book on biochemistry. It also presents the author's convictions to explain a handful of biochemical processes, however controversial they may be. This is an aspect that I cannot judge for myself, as it falls completely outside of my field of expertise. This however was not an impediment for me to read and understand much of the book. But the same is not true for someone lacking some basic knowledge on biology or even biochemistry. The author misuses the terms 'metamorphosis' to refer to 'metamorphism' in rocks, and 'crystal structure' of rocks when this should refer to the minerals that constitutes rocks. However, these are minor details that do not cast any shadow in an otherwise brilliant book.