Why is life the way it is? A talk by Nick Lane

February 3, 2017 • 12:00 pm

by Matthew Cobb

Nick Lane of University College London has just been awarded the Royal Society’s 2016 Michael Faraday Prize and Lecture, which “is awarded annually to the scientist or engineer whose expertise in communicating scientific ideas in lay terms is exemplary”. Nick is a brilliant writer of several books, including Life Ascending and, most recently The Vital Question, which Bill Gates fell in love with. (You can find more about his work, which has been translated into 25 languages, here).

Nick is also a leading researcher on the origin of life, and in particular on the way that eukaryotes – organisms with a nucleus and above all with mitochondria – came about. His research and his way with words led to him being awarded the Prize this year, which is much deserved.

As you’ll have noticed from the title of the award, he also got to give a lecture at the Royal Society, which took place at the award ceremony on 1 February. His title was also the subtitle of The Vital Question – Why Is Life The Way It Is? The Royal Society has been incredibly speedy about editing the video and here it is, for your delectation.

It’s 55 minutes long (there are 2 mins of introductory remarks you can skip over before you get to the citation, and then the talk) so you need to take your time, or bookmark it for later viewing. It is highly recommended, with some very important and complicated ideas being put over in a simple and engaging manner – exactly  really is brilliant, and will help you understand why we all are the way we are.

[JAC: I echo Matthew’s enthusiasm; if you have an hour to spare, and can enlarge this (there are slides), you’ll learn a lot from this video.]

18 thoughts on “Why is life the way it is? A talk by Nick Lane

  1. I’ve just recently finished reading The Vital Question. I skipped around a bit and re-read some chapters and sections multiple times. There is so much fascinating material in the book, theories on the origins of life, sex, and death.

    Looking at the origin and evolution of life from an energetics standpoint clarifies a lot for me. In particular, the peculiar universality of chemiosmosis and the central role mitochondrial endosymbiosis has played in creating the gulf between prokaryotic and eukaryotic life. So much emphasis has rightly been put on DNA, yet that may have been what distracted biologists from coming around to a metabolism-first perspective until now.

    With the publication last year of ancestral genes pointing squarely to LUCA being an alkaline-vent inhabitant, I’m dumbfounded that some researchers continue to think that life moved to the vents instead of originating there. It’s far more parsimonious that life originated from the naturally-occurring proton gradient, rather than co-opting it later.

    1. I took a course in bioenergetics way back when, but I learned, and understood, more from The Vital Question.

  2. This was a good talk. I’m not sure he explained why eukaryotic cells only evolved once, but I have a better handle now on why bacteria and archaea have not independently evolved multicelluarity. I think he’s making the argument that having obligate intracellular symbionts, *if* they have a reduced genome, is energetically and structurally advantageous. Many mitochondria, with a lot of surface area for the electron transport chain, but with little need to expend energy on their own (individual) reproduction are in a position to supply a lot of excess high energy phosphate bonds to the host. And proton pumps are certainly ubiquitous methods of driving all manner of cellular processes. I’d like to read some of his papers.

  3. I’ve had The Vital Question for over a year now and am still reading it. When I get lost I start over. Gets better every time.

  4. Great lecture.
    Haven’t read “The Vital Question” yet, but it will certainly be interesting.
    I think “Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life” is his most fascinating book. It explains eg. why eukaryotes have a nucleus with a membrane, or why mitochondria transfered a lot but not all their genes to the nucleus, and a lot more. Highly recommended.

  5. Color me surprised. The OK Virtual Library has The Vital Question available. They often do not have science themed books I am interested in. So, as soon as I get through with my current reading project…

  6. I am afraid many of his arguments do not hold. Take the argument that eukaryotes have more genes than bacteria, that they therefore need more energy, and the solution is to aquire mitochondria. I have discussed this assertion in my blog post


    and I have come to the conclusion that there is no connection at all between these aspects.

    Nick Lane’s assertion has also been criticized by Lynch, M. and Marinov, G.K. In “The bioenergetic costs of a gene” in Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. (USA) published online Nov. 2, 2105 they have come to the same conclusion. They even report that there in practical terms is an opposite relation.

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