Oxygen: The Molecule That Made the World

Oxygen: The Molecule That Made the World

Paperback Popular Science

By (author) Nick Lane

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  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Format: Paperback | 384 pages
  • Dimensions: 128mm x 196mm x 30mm | 259g
  • Publication date: 26 March 2004
  • Publication City/Country: Oxford
  • ISBN 10: 0198607830
  • ISBN 13: 9780198607830
  • Illustrations note: 13 figures
  • Sales rank: 33,224

Product description

Oxygen has had extraordinary effects on life. Three hundred million years ago, in Carboniferous times, dragonflies grew as big as seagulls, with wingspans of nearly a metre. Researchers claim they could have flown only if the air had contained more oxygen than today - probably as much as 35 per cent. Giant spiders, tree-ferns, marine rock formations and fossil charcoals all tell the same story. High oxygen levels may also explain the global firestorm that contributed to the demise of the dinosaurs after the asteroid impact. The strange and profound effects that oxygen has had on the evolution of life pose a riddle, which this book sets out to answer. Oxygen is a toxic gas. Divers breathing pure oxygen at depth suffer from convulsions and lung injury. Fruit flies raised at twice normal atmospheric levels of oxygen live half as long as their siblings. Reactive forms of oxygen, known as free radicals, are thought to cause ageing in people. Yet if atmospheric oxygen reached 35 per cent in the Carboniferous, why did it promote exuberant growth, instead of rapid ageing and death? Oxygen takes the reader on an enthralling journey, as gripping as a thriller, as it unravels the unexpected ways in which oxygen spurred the evolution of life and death. The book explains far more than the size of ancient insects: it shows how oxygen underpins the origin of biological complexity, the birth of photosynthesis, the sudden evolution of animals, the need for two sexes, the accelerated ageing of cloned animals like Dolly the sheep, and the surprisingly long lives of bats and birds. Drawing on this grand evolutionary canvas, Oxygen offers fresh perspectives on our own lives and deaths, explaining modern killer diseases, why we age, and what we can do about it. Advancing revelatory new ideas, following chains of evidence, the book ranges through many disciplines, from environmental sciences to molecular medicine. The result is a captivating vision of contemporary science and a humane synthesis of our place in nature. This remarkable book will redefine the way we think about the world.

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Author information

Nick Lane studied biochemistry at Imperial College, University of London. His doctoral research, at the Royal Free Hospital, was on oxygen free-radicals and metabolic function in organ transplants. Dr Lane is Honorary Reader at University College London and strategic director at Adelphi Medi Cine, a medical multimedia company based in London, where he is responsible for developing interactive approaches to medical education. Articles by Nick Lane have been published in numerous international journals, including Scientific American, The Lancet and the British Medical Journal. He lives in London.

Review quote

'... popular science writing at its very best - clear yet challenging, speculative yet rigorous. The book is a tour de force which orchestrates a seamless story out of both venerable ideas and very recent discoveries in several disparate fields.' Bernard Dixon '... a breathtaking, broad vision of the role of a single gas in our life, from the origin of organisms, through the emergence of creatures, and to their deaths ... packed full of interesting life-and-death stories...A wonderful read.' Peter Atkins '... one of the most thought-provoking books I have ever read.' John Emsley Nick Lane's chapters are dispatches from the frontiers of research into Earth and life history, but they contain nothing that will lose the patient reader and much that will reward. The Guardian Review a brisk revelatory study Christopher Hirst, The Independent ... Nick Lane marshals an impressive array of evidence - [an] ambitious narrative ... This is science writing at its best. Jerome Burne, The Financial Times

Editorial reviews

Oxygen is one of the most abundant of the elements found on Earth, both as a gas comprising one fifth of the atmosphere and in its most ubiquitous compound, water. In both these states it is vital to most life, but paradoxically in its pure gaseous form oxygen is toxic, and where present in the body as free-radicals (a reactive form of oxygen produced continuously at low levels by respiration) it is deleterious to health. How did such a potentially dangerous element become so bound up with life on Earth? And how does life cope with its toxicity? In this excellent book Nick Lane outlines the first appearance of oxygen and its subsequent fluctuations by examining the record left in prehistoric rocks. He postulates a peak in the atmosphere of 35% in the Carboniferous period and explains how oxygen was the cornerstone of the evolutionary explosion in the Precambrian era. He also reviews the theory that oxygen is implicated in ageing, and argues the case for a new viewpoint: that ageing is not a function of time but a function of oxidative stress, which tends to rise over time. Professor Lane presents his evidence and theories with commendable clarity. The science he draws on, while demanding concentration, should be accessible to anyone with a basic scientific knowledge, and he links oxygen to other fascinating subjects - the discovery of radium by Marie Curie, the impressively un-killable bacterium Dienococcus radiodurans (one of the most radiation-resistant organisms on Earth), and the longevity of birds and bats, to name but a few. A scholarly and readable introduction to an important topic. (Kirkus UK)

Table of contents

1. Introduction: Elixir of Life - and Death ; 2. In the Beginning there was no Oxygen: The Origins and Importance of Oxygen ; 3. Silence of the Aeons: Three Billion Years of Microbial Evolution ; 4. Fuse to the Cambrian Explosion: Snowball Earth, Environmental Change and the First Animals ; 5. The Bolsover Dragonfly: Oxygen and the Rise of the Giants ; 6. Treachery in the Air: Oxygen Poisoning and X-Irradiation: A Mechanism in Common ; 7. Green Planet: Radiation and the Beginnings of Photosynthesis ; 8. Looking for LUCA: Last Ancestor in the Age Before Oxygen ; 9. Portrait of a Paradox: Vitamin C and the Many Faces of an Antioxidant ; 10. The Antioxidant Machine: A Hundred and One Ways of Living with Oxygen ; 11. Sex and the Art of Bodily Maintenance: Trade-offs in the Evolution of Ageing ; 12. Eat! Or You'll Live Forever: The Triangle of Food, Sex, and Longevity ; 13. Gender Bender! The Rate of Living and the Need for Sexes ; 14. Beyond Genes and Destiny: The Double Agent Theory of Ageing and Disease ; 15. Life, Death and Oxygen: Lessons From Evolution on the Future of Ageing