The Deep Chemistry of Life and Death
W. W. Norton & Company, 2022, 400 pp., Hardcover. $30.00. www.wwnorton.com
What brings the Earth to life, and our own lives to an end? For decades, biology has been dominated by the study of genetic information, but that is only part of what makes us alive. Our inheritance also includes our living metabolic network, a flame passed from generation to generation, right back to the origin of life. In Transformer, biochemist Nick Lane reveals a scientific renaissance that is hiding in plain sight — how the same simple chemistry gives rise to life and causes our demise. Lane is among the vanguard of researchers asking why the Krebs cycle, the “perfect circle” at the heart of metabolism, remains so elusive more than 80 years after its discovery. Transformer is Lane’s voyage, as a biochemist, to find the inner meaning of the Krebs cycle — and its reverse — why it is still spinning at the heart of life and death today. Lane reveals the beautiful, violent world within our cells, where hydrogen atoms are stripped from the carbon skeletons of food and fed to the ravenous beast of oxygen. Yet this same cycle, spinning in reverse, also created the chemical building blocks that enabled the emergence of life on our planet. Now it does both. How can the same pathway create and destroy? What might our study of the Krebs cycle teach us about the mysteries of aging and the hardest problem of all, consciousness? Transformer unites the story of our planet with the story of our cells — what makes us the way we are, and how it connects us to the origin of life. Enlivened by Lane’s talent for distilling and humanizing complex research, this book offers an essential read for anyone fascinated by biology’s great mysteries. Life is at root a chemical phenomenon: this is its deep logic.