Clive Cookson at the Financial Times:
There is a black hole at the heart of biology,” says Nick Lane, who is emerging as one of the most imaginative thinkers about the evolution of life on Earth. The hole surrounds the transition around 1.8bn years ago from simple microbes, which had monopolised the planet for the previous 2bn years, to the complex “eukaryotic” cells that went on to become animals, plants, fungi and protozoa. For Lane, a biochemist at University College London, the little discussed origins of cellular complexity are The Vital Question for biologists seeking to understand why life is the way it is.
Yet scientists have paid much more attention to how the first primitive cells originated on the young Earth, when it was some 500m years old. Lane’s latest book, following on from his prizewinning Life Ascending(2009), does, in fact, start with the origins of life. Indeed, he puts forward a convincing argument for the first living cells having formed around alkaline hydrothermal vents. Only in this fiercely hot deep-sea environment could the chemical conditions and energy flow promote hydrogen to react with carbon dioxide and form self-replicating organic compounds.