Oxygen: The molecule that made the world

Oxygen: The molecule that made the world

by Nick Lane


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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 might just redefine the way we think about the world.

Oxford Landmark Science books are 'must-read' classics of modern science writing which have crystallized big ideas, and shaped the way we think.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780198784937
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Publication date: 07/01/2016
Series: Oxford Landmark Science
Edition description: Revised
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 272,487
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Nick Lane, Reader in Evolutionary Biochemistry, Research Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment, University College of London

Dr Nick Lane is a British biochemist and writer. He was awarded the first Provost's Venture Research Prize in the Department of Genetics, Evolution, and Environment at University College London, where he is now a Reader in Evolutionary Biochemistry. Dr Lane's research deals with evolutionary biochemistry and bioenergetics, focusing on the origin of life and the evolution of complex cells. Dr Lane was a founding member of the UCL Consortium for Mitochondrial Research, and is leading the UCL Research Frontiers Origins of Life programme. He was awarded the 2011 BMC Research Award for Genetics, Genomics, Bioinformatics and Evolution, and the 2015 Biochemical Society Award for his sustained and diverse contribution to the molecular life sciences and the public understanding of science. His books include Oxygen: The Molecule that Made the World (OUP, 2002), and Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life (OUP, 2005).

Table of Contents

1. Introduction: Elixir of Life - and Death
2. In the Beginning: 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
Further Reading

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Oxygen: The Molecule that Made the World 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
psiloiordinary on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A very mind expanding and thought provoking book.There is a lot more here than you might be expecting even from the title. What you get are new perspectives on life and death, why we age and what we might be able to do about it.Two main themes are the evolution of life and the various health claims surrounding vitamin C and anti-oxidants. Regarding this later theme you shouldn't be surprised to hear that the actual science is very different from the version of it you may have gathered from either the popular press or from those trying to sell you vitamin C or other products with anti-oxidant properties.Almost as a casual aside we find out about how and why there is sex, how life made earth liveable and the likely cause of many diseases.This chap likes to argue rationally and he certainly follows the evidence, but what I also like about him is that he is prepared to look just a little bit further and speculate sensibly about how he thinks things may be found to be in the near future. Science writing at its best.A great book from a great author. Read all his stuff .
NSALegal More than 1 year ago
Excellent and thorough, it starts as a history of the element on earth, then into our best understanding of its positive and negative effects in bodily functions. It does get a bit bogged down in evaluating the health effects of antioxidants. In part the problem is in the continuing uncertainties in the field, but some streamlining would have helped.