Oxygen: The molecule that made the world (Oxford Landmark Science)

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9780198784937: Oxygen: The molecule that made the world (Oxford Landmark Science)
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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.

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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).

From The New England Journal of Medicine:

Nick Lane, the author of Oxygen, studied biochemistry at the University of London and did his doctoral research on oxygen free radicals at the Royal Free Hospital in London, but then left science to become the director of a multimedia company involved to a certain extent in medical education. His background suffuses this book, both for better and for worse. Apart from the first chapter, which is cast in a style approaching the juvenile, the book is very well written and easy to read. Lane makes his points clearly, and his lines of reasoning are well developed. The first half of the book is a very interesting and well-thought-out analysis of evolution, starting from the Archean eon and carrying on through the appearance of multicellular eukaryotes, such as humans. There is some awkward writing: "oxygen-hating" this and that, "first ever ice age," and a strained analogy about opinionated newspaper proprietors. Early in the book there are three or four statements that look like errors, but they are corrected later in the book. Of considerable interest, however, are Lane's remarks about chlorophyll arising from purple bacteria. Even more interesting is his comment to the effect that the oxygen-evolving complex in plants arose from an adaptation of catalase. He astutely points out that Fridovich's discovery of superoxide dismutase was "the most important discovery in modern biology never to win the Nobel Prize," a sentiment with which I heartily concur. The second half of the book begins with an excellent chapter on vitamin C, in which the author appropriately describes the outstanding work of Mark Levine and quotes Linus Pauling: "I would trust the biochemistry of a goat over the advice of a doctor." But subsequently, there is a mistake: Sue-Goo Rhee is referred to as a woman, when in fact he is a man. The rest of the second half, though informative in many places, is chiefly a buildup to the author's own theory -- namely, that aging itself is due exclusively to the damage caused by the leakage of oxygen radicals from aging mitochondria. In the course of the book, Lane takes a couple of shots at scientists for working on little pictures instead of the big picture. He takes little cognizance of the fact that big pictures, including the cause of aging, are made by the assembly of little pictures and that his own theory, probably only in part correct, was derived from many little pictures. He cites a few articles that support his idea but none that oppose it. Despite the inclusion of a small number of references, the book is not a perfect work of scholarship. But it is not meant to be one. It is a thought-provoking popularization of evolution and oxygen biochemistry, and I'm glad I read it. Its shortcomings notwithstanding, I can recommend the book strongly because of its informational content and its breezy and accessible style. It has to be read, though, with eyes open. Bernard M. Babior, M.D., Ph.D.
Copyright © 2003 Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved. The New England Journal of Medicine is a registered trademark of the MMS.

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Other Popular Editions of the Same Title

9780198607830: Oxygen: The Molecule that Made the World (Popular Science)

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ISBN 10:  0198607830 ISBN 13:  9780198607830
Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2004
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9780198508038: Oxygen: The Molecule that Made the World

Oxford..., 2003
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