Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life

John Alcolado in the British Medical Journal:

AlcoladoMitochondria are truly fascinating beasts. While many of us find it difficult to become excited about vesicles, ribosomes, endoplasmic reticulum, or even the Golgi apparatus, it is difficult not to become entranced by the tiny organelles that fuel our existence. As with so many objects of admiration, it is difficult to be precise about what we find so enthralling. Is it that they posses their own DNA? That gram for gram they generate more energy than the sun? Or that they may have once been free-living organisms? Perhaps they fulfil a deep-rooted Oedipal complex; the only part of us that is all of our mother, with no paternal influence to dilute the relationship.

In this book, Nick Lane explores many of these questions. Taking a mito-centric view of life, he seeks to explain the critical role of mitochondria not only in energy production (power), but also sexual reproduction (sex) and apoptosis (suicide). He explores the hypothesis that the critical moment in the development of the eukaryotic cell, and hence multicellular life, and ultimately man himself, was the union of two cells, one of which became subservient to the other as the ancestral mitochondrion. 

As a Darwinian evolutionist, the author tells a good tale: “Once upon a time a methanogen and alpha-proteobacterium lived side-by-side in the ocean where oxygen was scarce…” and there are more twists and turns than in an average detective story, all plausible and potentially possible. Those on the creationist or grand design side of the fence will be consoled by the fact that although Nick Lane implies the evolution of humanity or the human consciousness he cannot believe that bacteria will ever “ascend the smooth ramp to sentience, or anywhere much beyond slime.”

More here.